How should EU policymakers seek to address the issue of e-waste?

#CriticalThinking

Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Carmen Ene
Carmen Ene

CEO of 3stepIT and BNP Paribas 3 Step IT

The events of the last 12 months have undoubtedly emphasised the impact that humanity has on our planet and the fragility of our relationship with nature. The pandemic has shown that we cannot always control that relationship. The virus has caused a greater impact on our social and economic lives than any event outside war, but governments, industry, and science have come together to find a solution.

As we recover from this shock, we should consider how we can use this same energy and cooperation to fight an enemy that we have created ourselves. If we do not take decisive action, climate change will have more serious impacts on our society than the virus. There is so much that can be done, but my personal preoccupation is with e-waste.

Electronic waste is now the world’s fastest growing waste stream. As corporate appetite for technology grows and information technology (IT) becomes obsolete more quickly, the number of devices going to landfills has skyrocketed.

The UN Global E-waste Monitor revealed that e-waste reached 53.6mn metric tonnes (Mt) in 2019 – the equivalent of throwing 1,000 laptops away every second. Much of this is emanates from the corporate world, with 10% of EU businesses admitting to throwing away unused IT equipment and 25% unclear where their old technology ends up. And that was all before the pandemic emptied offices and saw businesses abandon desktops to purchase swathes of new tech to facilitate a remote workforce.

International governments have consistently failed to meet their e-waste targets

The solution must be twofold: a concerted effort by governments to create a policy environment where manufacturers and businesses are required to take responsibility for their e-waste contribution, coupled with a radical shift in the way the corporate world consumes technology.

Despite pressure to act, European policymakers have had difficulty finding a workable solution to the e-waste crisis. International governments have consistently failed to meet their e-waste targets. Regulatory efforts have focused on the responsibility of manufacturers to take back used technology, or on consumers to dispose of personal devices more responsibly. Mandating action from businesses has been largely ignored.

A 2020 UN report revealed that although Europe is the continent with the highest documented e-waste collection and recycling rate at 42.5%; it is also the region that generates the most e-waste per capita at 16.2 kg. Collection of e-waste has grown by almost 0.4 Mt per year since 2014. The issue is that we are simply unable to keep pace with consumption.

There is some positive progress underway across Europe. In the UK, the government’s ‘Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy’ report recommended “ambitious long-term targets for the collection, re-use, and recycling of e-waste”. European lawmakers have also agreed to a set of ambitious proposals in the EU’s circular economy action plan, including mandatory targets to reduce e-waste.

Pressure on manufacturers to standardise parts is just one part of the puzzle

EU Right to Repair laws were another big step forward, kickstarting a much-needed change to the narrative, moving away from recycling as an environmental panacea, and beginning to actively promote and incentivise reuse as an alternative. France has gone a step further and introduced a Repairability Index, giving consumers more information to help them choose repairable products. This must be adopted throughout the EU, along with other measures that put reuse at the forefront of the environmental debate.

Pressure on manufacturers to standardise parts is just one part of the puzzle. We must also create an environment in which businesses are actively encouraged to consume technology differently. Education will be key. EU governments must work with businesses to help them understand and adopt alternative consumption models, while also encouraging better accountability for e-waste disposal.

Business leaders know they can no longer sit by and wait for instructions from the government. Consumers and investors are demanding action now. Rather than a linear approach where technology is bought, used, and disposed, Europe’s leading companies are turning towards a model based on the circular economy, where devices are acquired and managed as a service, before being returned and given a second life, instead of being recycled or dumped in a landfill.

This kind of behaviour must be reinforced, if not mandated, by government regulations. Nearly two-thirds of EU business leaders think that it is governments’ responsibility to support businesses with sustainable e-waste disposal and 37% agree that compulsory reporting or targets should be implemented.

Tackling e-waste will require a concerted effort from both the public and private sector

The adoption of a circular economy is at the heart of this approach and will be crucial to a green recovery for both government and business. According to Accenture, it could uncover $4.5tn in economic benefits by 2030. Researchers at the University of Leeds also believe that government action towards a greener economy could provide an £800bn boost to GDP by 2030 and 850,000 jobs in the next decade. In global equities, leaders in environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) outperformed companies with poor ESG ratings by almost seven percentage points during the first two months of the pandemic. These economic arguments are just as important as the environmental ones and should act as a powerful motivation for EU governments.

Tackling e-waste will require a concerted effort from both the public and private sector. Rebuilding businesses and reinvigorating economies is rightly front of mind for policymakers, but our recovery can have a positive environmental impact at the same time if we shift the discourse towards the reuse of technology.

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