20 years of e-waste legislation in Europe: what’s the way forward?


On 7 December, the WEEE Forum gathered over 170 experts representing all the actors of the e-waste value chain at its “EPR Grand Challenge” Conference, to discuss the next steps for global extended producer responsibility (EPR).

It was arranged for a double celebration: twenty years of WEEE legislation and twenty years of the WEEE Forum, which was initially set up to represent European e-waste producer responsibility organisations, but now speaks for 47 such companies across the world.

The keynote address was given by Virginijus Sinkevičius, European Commissioner for the Environment, who talked about the achievements in e-waste management in the EU and thanked the WEEE Forum for its efforts over the years, but also emphasised that there is still much to do:

“Right now, despite the improvements, too many waste appliances are failing to reach facilities for treatment or repair.

“They are forgotten at the back of a drawer, illegally exported or scavenged for valuable parts which often leads to pollution. Turning this round is the grand challenge that we face, we will get there by working together and building a more circular economy.”

The conference presented four challenges of the sector and each of these was discussed by expert panels to find solutions on how to tackle the growing e-waste tide.

Delivering the Circular Economy

WEE Conference
The WEEE Forum gathered over 170 experts representing all the actors of the e-waste value chain at its “EPR Grand Challenge” Conference.

The worldwide societal challenge of e-waste needs to be collectively addressed. Many efforts are made by the collection schemes to incite citizens to return their e-waste.

But the challenge of putting a circular economy into practice and constructing circular societies where reuse, repair and recycling of electronic products become social norms needs a whole value chain approach with new business models and approaches.

Valérie Guillard, Professor at Université Paris-Dauphine, questioned the psychological aspects of the transition to circular attitudes: “Why is it so difficult for consumers to change their way of consuming?

Why is it so difficult for consumers to change their way of consuming?

“Possessions make up for a lack of identity. Possessions have an ostentatious character. Consumption gives meaning to studies, work and even social relationships.”

Bruno Vermoesen, representing BSH Home Appliances, described how much is already being done on the production side with the use of recycled materials and avoiding critical raw materials, for example.

Deploying producer responsibility internationally

E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world and therefore of global concern.

Jan Vlak, the president of the WEEE Forum, stated in his opening speech: “I am of the view that we need a Paris-type Agreement creating an international regime, a global secretariat, a partnership structure, a global treaty or other UN initiative to cover several critical areas of e-waste management and related EPR programmes.”

Vanessa Gray of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, added: “Not only producers but all relevant actors, including regulators, consumers and recyclers, must play a role in the EPR system to successfully increase the collection of e-waste.”

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy

Without secure and sustainable access to the necessary raw materials, Europe’s ambition to become the first climate-neutral continent is at risk. Guillaume Pitron, French journalist and author of the best-selling “The Rare Metals War”, addressed the questions on how the e-waste collection sector can foster access to critical raw materials and make Europe less dependent on third countries.

He also explained the economic, political and environmental issues associated with the use of rare earth metals noting that “there has been no energy transition in history that has not required more metals and minerals, and the green energy transition is no different.”

A new vision on EPR in future WEEE legislation

Weee forum

In Europe, 55% of e-waste generated is officially collected and reported. Other parts of the world show much slower growth rates in their collection, and the global reported average collection rate is just 17%.

The e-waste that is collected in Europe is also treated to higher standards than in the rest of the world. That’s largely thanks to twenty years of EPR legislation across Europe. However, the panel agreed that legislation must be redesigned to make it fit for purpose for new market realities and based on the lessons learned in the past two decades.

There was also agreement that all the players are committed to improving the legislation and there is sympathy for the view that a Regulation, rather than a Directive, would mean the playing field is more level across all member states with no differences resulting from transposition to national laws. It is felt that this will be one of the keys to ensuring future WEEE legislation has the desired impact.

WEEE Flows report launched

A publication, prepared in partnership between UNITAR and the WEEE Forum and its members was also disclosed at the event. The paper provides key statistics of WEEE flows and collection rates in the EU-27, Norway, United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Iceland from 2010 to 2021.

The study reveals, among others, that the amount of EEE put on the market in these countries increased from 9.8 million metric tonnes(Mt) in 2010 to 13.3 Mt in 2019 (25.2 kg/inhabitant).

The WEEE generated also saw an increase of 2.1 Mt, from 8.3 Mt in 2010 to 10.4 Mt (19.6 kg/inhabitant) in 2021. The documented formal collection of WEEE shows an increase of 1.8 Mt, from 3.8 Mt in 2010 to 5.6 Mt (10.5 kg/inhabitant) in 2021.

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