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Science

EU tackles e-waste anew through legislation, entrepreneurship

Brussels is spearheading a new effort to crackdown on loopholes in electronic waste management, while a new Belgian tech company has become the first to receive fair-trade certification.

People on laptops

Computers like these often end up in developing countries, including China, Ghana, and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa

No matter how cherished an electronic item is in life, most electronic gadgets end up at the dump - or, as they call it in Belgium, at the Container Park.

Here, electronic waste - or e-waste - gets sorted into categories and theoretically gets taken apart, with hazardous substances removed by well-trained workers in protective gear. The recyclable components are melted down and anything biodegradable gets sent off to be composted.

But the problem is that only a fraction of cast-off electronics in the European Union actually see that fate.

European officials take up stronger measures

A new report by the European Parliament shows about 65 percent of the total amount of e-waste generated in the bloc gets turned in and sorted correctly, but after that things go downhill.

Besides existing EU laws requiring collection and treatment, all EU member states have signed the Basel Convention, which outlaws the export of hazardous waste and requires e-waste to be treated as close to its origin as possible. But through loopholes, by claiming items are donations or functioning second-hand goods for re-sale - or by simply breaking the law - middlemen are making millions and making impoverished nations pay the price.

A tattered Belgian flag is seen blowing in the wind at the Cinquantenaire monument in Brussels

While currently holding the EU presidency, Belgium is leading moves to tighten regulations on e-waste

"We've been clearly negligent because we haven't sent the right resources to fight illegal shipments," said Stephane Arditi of the European Environmental Bureau, a Brussels-based NGO. "And that is something everybody is aware of, probably also ashamed of."

She added that tightening existing laws will help, but it's enforcement that's really needed from the developed world.

Mike Anane, president of the League of Environmental Journalists in Ghana, told researchers from the Danish watchdog organization DanWatch that his country is clearly being used as a convenient landfill for Europe. He noted the mountains of discarded computers, monitors and televisions that Ghana has no way to recycle.

"Some come under the guise of donations but when you examine the items, they don't work," Anane said. "It's just a way to get rid of these computers from Europe to Africa."

'Of importance to all of us'

One of Anane's colleagues, Maren Swart is currently in Accra, where she is investigating the levels of e-waste shipped to Ghana either illegally or through the second-hand item loopholes.

"We have found computers from Danish companies before in Accra," she said. "They had a tag on them showing that they were from a school in Denmark."

The European Parliament's environment committee is now proposing more stringent standards that would require each member state to collect 85 percent of the waste it generates and to prove that the majority of the waste is treated within the country. The full legislature will vote on the proposed changes in September.

Belgium currently holds the EU presidency and has made sustainable materials management, including ethical waste treatment, a priority for the next six months.

Joke Schauvliege, the Flemish environment minister, said the entire lifecycle of products needs to be considered. When possible, she said, the "cradle to cradle principle" should be applied, meaning that waste is used to create new products, rather than mountains of non-functioning monitors.

"This is a societal challenge on a large scale," she said in Dutch. "These are things of importance to all of us. It's not just governments that need to deal with this, it's also the business world, citizens and also think tanks, experts. We need free-thinkers, forerunners."

Actually, Schauvliege has some free-thinkers and forerunners right at home in Belgium.

United Pepper webcams

United Pepper sells these webcams made of kapok, cotton and Mekong Delta sand, all of which are natural products.

Webcam casing created with natural fibers

Their names are Marc Aelbrecht, Jean-Pierre d'Haese and Xavier Petre and they left companies like Alcatel and Cisco to create United Pepper.

Now they design items like webcams and USB hubs that are largely biodegradable, with a cotton casing filled with a natural fiber called kapok and weighted with sand from the Mekong River in Vietnam, where the company's manufacturing sites are located.

They're awaiting the day when even the lens and cable can be made of natural materials, the men say, but for now they ensure that the non-green components are kept to a bare minimum and that every step of the process is transparent.

Xavier Petre noted consumers are increasingly demanding that kind of information for ethical decision-making.

"When you put 50 euros on the table to buy a webcam you should know who is behind it and you should know what kind of material is used," he said.

United Pepper is also the first electronics producer in the world to be certified as "fair trade," meaning it upholds standards of sustainability both in the components of its products and the workforce putting them together.

This type of certification, perhaps best known in agricultural and beauty products and clothing, doesn't even exist yet in the electronics industry, so United Pepper asked the UK-based NGO Traidcraft to audit the company in order to document that the company's practices meet a high ethical and environmental standard.

"We are becoming entrepreneurs in a new kind of economy," d'Haese said. "Now is the time to make the values accepted by our market."

And, he added, once a webcam owner removes the tiny lens and cable from a United Pepper webcam, the only "dirty" part of the disposal is the bed of Mekong sand in which seeds in the natural kapok filling have been known to sprout.

Author: Teri Schultz / Cyrus Farivar
Editor: Kate Bowen

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