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Law enforcement agencies are increasingly worried about the links between e-waste and organised crime.

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Special report Criminal gangs cash in on thriving illegal e-waste trade

Matilda Lee

2nd December, 2010

The Environment Agency and Interpol are being forced to tackle the growing trade in electrical waste to stop our unwanted TVs, computers and refrigerators falling into the wrong hands

In the same month that the Environment Agency (EA) brought to court 11 people and four companies - part of the biggest investigation ever carried out into the illegal export of electrical waste from the UK to developing countries - senior agency officials insist the thriving trade can be stemmed if people take responsibility for their own waste.

At the EA's recent annual conference, Ed Mitchell, director of environment and business, said that ‘a simple change of mindset' would go a long way towards stopping waste electronics such as TVs, computers and refrigerators from falling into the wrong hands.

Legitimate electronic-waste carriers or brokers must be registered with the EA and able to show the relevant documentation to prove it. In contravention of the EU's Waste Electronics and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive, however, unscrupulous waste companies are profiting from the illegal export to developing countries of electrical items that are beyond repair.

‘All you need to do is ask for evidence - a simple sheet of paper,' says Mitchell. 'If people just did that one basic thing a lot of the problem would be solved.'

Yet it seems that even some local authorities and government departments are failing to do just that.

EA chief executive Paul Leinster confirmed to the Ecologist that investigations currently being conducted into illegal waste exports have uncovered waste electronics originating from government departments. When pressed he said he ‘didn't know' from which department specifically.

In July, Plymouth city council was fined £12,000 for breaches of the WEEE directive, the EA's first successful prosecution for the illegal export of e-waste. The local authority was blamed for ‘gross negligence' for selling hazardous waste to recycling companies with ‘no questions asked'.

Crime pays

In a more sinister development, the illegal e-waste trade has known links to organised crime, according to the EA and Interpol.

Interpol's pollution crime working group (PCWG) identified a ‘huge potential' for informal networks of criminals to profit from illegal export of e-waste. According to an Interpol report, e-waste can produce returns of around €450 per tonne.

E-waste exports are ‘very cheap but highly profitable' because of the potential for three sources of income: from waste collection for local authorities; from companies under Producer Responsibility Regulations, and from brokers abroad, to whom the waste is sold.

One of the main ways the networks function is through ‘waste tourists' - individuals who temporarily travel to the UK from Asia and West Africa to buy up e-waste for export, and are involved in its illegal disposal.

The two most common methods to get the waste out of the country identified by the report are to mislabel containers and to mix e-waste with legitimate consignments, such as end-of-life vehicles.

The annual turnover of this illegal trade is estimated to be £2 million. Because electronic waste is the UK's fastest-growing source of waste, with more than six million appliances - a total of one million tonnes - thrown away in the UK every year, the trade looks likely to continue to expand.

UK recycled plants underused

In stark contrast to the thriving illegal trade, a recent visit by the Ecologist to an electrical waste treatment plant in Kent revealed that legitimate waste recyclers are struggling to find enough to recycle.

SWEEEP, in Sittingbourne, Kent, reprocess a variety of waste electricals and handles approximately 2,000 televisions alone each day. While the huge mountains of TVs, computers and toasters waiting to be dismantled may look overwhelming, manager Justin Greenaway says that the plant is running at two-thirds of its full capacity.

Greenaway explained the laborious process of recycling a typical TV, which includes dismantling by hand and removing cathode ray tubes, circuit boards, separating metal, back and front glass and plastic. All this is done by trained employees in controlled conditions with proper safety equipment. Many of the individual materials are then sold on to be reused in new products.

Done improperly, dismantling electrical waste can release hazardous substances including mercury and lead, which are harmful to humans and the environment.

New business model

Dean Overton is managing director of Midlands-based Overton Recycling, which recycles approximately 25,000 tonnes of e-waste a year but is licensed to reprocess 45,000 tonnes. In an entrepreneurial spirit he has started a ‘Smart Seconds' initiative, where a team of technicians check old electronic equipment for potential reuse and then repair them.

‘We decided to open Smart Seconds as we are often asked why items can't simply be reused, rather than always recycled,' he says. 'Manufacturing new items can be energy-intensive and environmentally unfriendly. We realised that it was a waste to get rid of it - not the most sustainable way. There is a business model for reuse as well.'

Overton has personal experience with companies profiting from the illegal export of e-waste. ‘People are undercutting the system. The minute you ask them for their export papers they disappear into thin air. I get calls like this about once a day.'

Intelligence-led approach

The EA will bring another four prosecutions to court over the next few weeks. Ed Mitchell said its new intelligence-led approach to crime investigations has resulted in a 98 per cent hit rate. Previously the EA performed random checks on shipping containers to try to detect e-waste being illegally sent abroad.

Yet campaigners say that more can be done to prevent illegal e-waste. Iza Kruszewska, a toxics campaigner at Greenpeace International and part of a team that led an undercover investigation into e-waste from the UK, says that individual manufacturers should be financially responsible for recycling their products, which would both incentivise them to design out the toxic materials and give them lower end-of-life costs.

‘There is a limit to how much a governmental authority can do,' she says. 'As part of our investigation we put a tracking device in a television and found it ended up in Nigeria. But how many tracking devices can you use to follow products around the world?'

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Community Affairs Editor

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