The Circular Economy And Its Benefits: Why The European Electronic Waste Directive is Necessary as a Strategic Resource for the Circular Economy
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the EU (and globally) and will have harmful consequences if not managed properly. (Read more about e-waste in the previous article https://www.veltha.eu/blog/electronic-waste/ ) In addition, it contains valuable and critical raw materials, the recycling of which is essential for a more circular economy and possible strategic autonomy open for the EU. Growing consumption and technological advancement and digitization is predicted to change, and with that, the challenges in waste management are expected to arise in the upcoming years. (1)
WEEE legislation was first enacted in 2002 to prevent or reduce the adverse effects of WEEE on the EU environment and human health. (2) In 2012 the European Commission has reviewed and recast the Directive , [Directive 2012/19/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 4 July 2012 on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)].
In the following period 2022/2023, the Commission foresees an assessment on whether the WEEE Directive still fits for purpose. The directive sets increasingly stringent collection and recycling targets. Separate collection of electrical and electronic equipment from unsorted municipal waste is a prerequisite for proper disposal. (3)
How do we classify e-waste?
E-Waste can be classified according to the source and use of electrical equipment. There are ten different types of e-waste recognized globally (Figure 1) (4). The average percentage for each e-waste category can vary based on many factors, including socioeconomic conditions, consumer behaviour, population, and the dependence of businesses and households on electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) (5). Nevertheless, large household items are the main contributor to e-waste (42.1%), followed by IT and telecommunications (33.9%), consumer appliances (13.7%), and small household appliances (4.7%) (6) Contributions from other categories are lower (medical, lighting, power, and electronic tools < 2%, and automatic dispensers, toys, sports, monitoring, and control equipment < 1%) (6) to improve readability. In developing countries, e-waste is dominated by televisions, computers, and mobile phones (7).
Source: Types of e-waste and common examples (8)
What are the challenges of E-waste management and opportunities?
Electronic and electrical waste needs to be addressed not just in terms of its recycling process but also in terms of composition, since it contains metals with different physicochemical properties. If the substances containing these hazardous compounds are not properly disposed of, they may cause serious environmental threats. Proper waste management techniques have become a global priority to mitigate human health risks and environmental degradation. (7)
Although all the necessary laws to collect and recycle e-waste are in place, handling and disposing of e-waste remains a challenge due to its mix of hazardous, valuable, non-precious materials. Generally speaking, e-waste is composed of 40% metals, 30% plastic polymers, and 30% oxides of various materials(9). E-waste contains valuable materials (Ag, Au and Pd), basic materials (Cu, Al, Ni, Sn, Zn, Fe, Bi, Sb and In), hazardous materials (Hg, Be, Pb, Cd and As) , halogen materials (Br, F, Cl) as well as plastics, glass, and ceramics (10).
The particular challenge of e-waste management is recycling valuable rare earth and usable materials while discarding hazardous materials. Waste management hazards include handling hazardous chemicals such as CFC fluids, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, machine safety, manual handling of large objects, electrical safety, cutting and abrasion risks, and fire and explosion risks (9).
Source: A typical composition of materials present in e-waste (15)
To address these challenges since 2003, EU legislation restricts the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment through the RoHS Directive [Directive 2011/65/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2011 on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment] At the same time, the WEEE Directive encourages the collection and recycling of such equipment. The RoHS Directive currently restricts the use of ten substances: lead (Pb), cadmium (Cd), mercury (Hg), hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diisobutyl phthalate (DIBP). (7)
Other challenges in e-waste management include a limited environmentally-friendly number of chemical liquids approved for e-waste management, the lack of infrastructure, the existence of thermodynamic limitations to separate complex mixture of materials resulting in low recycling costs, financial and political support, especially for developing countries, and countries’ inconsistent legislation with significant differences. (7)
The example of gold and copper
The prospects and opportunities deriving from an efficient recycling process of e-waste are crucial. As mentioned earlier, e-waste contains precious metals that can be recovered through municipal e-waste mining. A typical example of this type of urban mining is that up to 1.5 kg of gold and 210 kg of copper can be extracted from one ton of circuit boards (11). Precious metal concentrations are far superior to ore primary mining. For example, conventionally mined gold from ore has a gold content of 5 g/t (10) and copper content of 5.25 kg/t (11). These figures suggest that the gold and copper concentrations in urban mines are 30 to 40 times higher than in ore. The recycling of these precious metals can generate substantial profits when the proper business model is used. (7)
Effects on human health
Another perspective on e-waste management is connected to the environmental and human health benefits (12). Today, human health and environmental issues are seen as priority issues (13). However, in developing countries, e-waste disposal has never been seen as a serious problem, resulting in poor and unsafe health and environmental conditions around landfills (14). Therefore, the adoption and implementation of e-waste management strategies, policies, and laws can greatly improve these conditions. (7)
What are the EU actions?
Despite what has just been discussed, the separate collection of WEEE remains a major challenge for most Member States. The Commission has launched a compliance initiative to assess best practices and deficiencies in implementing the directive, including the separate collection of WEEE. Member States have also assessed WEEE handling practices with a view to further harmonizing, building on practical experience in applying the handling standards initiated by the Commission.
A review by the European Court of Auditors found that EU member states collect and recycle more end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment than the rest of the world. The review addresses measures and challenges related to the implementation of existing e-waste management requirements; poor e-waste management; illegal shipments and other criminal activities; and increased e-waste collection, recycling, and reuse. (16)
According to an overview published on 20 May 2021, the EU currently recycles around 80% of the e-waste it collects. However, the collection, recycling, and reuse of e-waste are not equally effective in all EU member states.
What do regional offices have to say and what problems or solutions are they facing?
Tackling the issue of e-waste in Europe places EU regions in a crucial position to advance waste management. In the research of the problem that regions are facing and solutions used, in the e-waste management, Andalusia Region in Spain shared opinions and inputs from their regional situation.
Waste and Soil Quality Service General Directorate of Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change, Regional Office of Andalusia Region (Spain) emphasized:
"It is important to focus targets not only on the total percentage of WEEE recycled. We can be satisfied with high recycling figures that actually represent a recovery of iron and aluminium, while heavy metals or other hazardous substances are not recycled and can be being released into the environment. This is why I strongly believe that knowing and quantifying the hazardous substances contained in WEEE and studying their recovery rates is of vital importance." -RaúlHead of the Soil Quality Department Waste and Soil Quality Service General Directorate of Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change
I fully share Raúl's opinion in the sense that it is necessary that, in addition to the gross percentage of recycled material obtained, the need for the correct treatment of dangerous substances and components be highlighted, and that they require adequate knowledge for their extraction and manipulation as well as its quantification.
On the other hand, from Andalusia we try to keep abreast of advances and improvements in the management of electrical and electronic equipment, apart from waste from private households and the like, this region is eager in solar photovoltaic and wind energy production and this is a concern for the correct management of this type of equipment at the end of their useful life. - JoaquínWaste and Soil Quality Service General Directorate of Environmental Sustainability and Climate Change
Goals and requirements of the EU
After meeting previous e-waste collection and recycling targets, the EU has set more ambitious goals, although data on the new targets are not yet available. The review praised efforts such as incorporating circular economy requirements into proposed legislation, incentivizing reductions in material use, and promoting product reparability and durability. However, the requirements have not been fully updated to cover specific electrical and electronic equipment. (16)
To tackle the e-waste problem in small digital devices, for almost 10 years, member states have been in need of a law that would reduce the disposal of e-waste in everyday consumption. One single charger for all mobile phones and tablets – beneficial for the environment and for consumers. USB Type-C port will be the new standard for portable devices, offering high-quality charging and data transfers. Buyers will be able to choose whether to purchase a new device with or without a charging device. Consumers in the EU will soon be able to use a single charging solution for their electronic devices following parliamentary approval of a Directive [Directive 2014/53/EU on the harmonisation of the laws of the Member States relating to the making available on the market of radio equipment]. The Directive defines common results, the norm is transposed by the Member States into national laws, and according to that by the end of 2024, all phones, tablets, and cameras sold in the EU must have a USB Type-C charging port. This obligation will also extend to laptops starting in spring 2026. The new law, which passed on the 4th of October 2022, a plenary meeting with 602 votes in favour, 13 against, and 8 abstentions, is part of a broader EU effort to reduce e-waste and empower consumers to make more sustainable choices. USB Type-C will be used for all new cell phones, tablets, digital cameras, headsets, portable video game consoles and portable speakers, e-readers, keyboards, mice, portable navigation systems, headsets, and laptops, regardless of the manufacturer.
As wireless charging becomes more mainstream, the European Commission needs to harmonize interoperability requirements by the end of 2024 to avoid negative impacts on consumers and the environment. The law also removes the so-called technology “lock-in” effect, where consumers become dependent on a single manufacturer. (17)
As well-described by the example of the USB-C unique charger for all devices, the lack and the delay in the approval and implementation of the European law, has led to the generation of 4.5 million tons of e-waste solely in the year 2019.
The introduction and the application of this European Law will give a clear indication to the producers and to the industry: the generation of unnecessary e-waste will not be accommodated any longer.
Similarly, the DigiPrime project [www.digiprime.eu] is working on the definition of sets of recommendations for policymakers, collecting industry-specific inputs to positively influence the production of new norms facilitating the circular economy transition.
The contributions so far collected push toward the production of EU-wide Regulations that establish the same conditions for all business operators across Europe. What the industries are asking the European Regulators is clear guidance and to set the same rules across all the Continents: this will allow them to compete under the same instructions.
We are now collecting inputs from European Companies:
- Are you facing barriers created by legislation that is hampering your business to go circular?
- Do you think that a law can be improved to better serve the circular economy?
If you are experiencing these issues, please contact VELTHA at email@example.com we will be happy to collect your testimony to build our Recommendation and to positively influence policy making
 Directive defines common results; the norm is transposed by the Member States into national laws
 EU Regulations – binding legal force throughout all of Europe, enters into force as it is on the same date in each Member State
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