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EU activates new e-waste recycling rules

Aug. 15, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

BRUSSELS, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- The European Union says its hopes to extract more rare earth metals, gold, silver and copper from electronic waste through new rules introduced this week.

After years of hard bargaining with environmentalists, businesses and national governments, the European Commission has put into effect an update of the European Union's 10-year-old directive on recycling "e-waste," which includes used TVs, laptops and mobile phones.

Under the new rules -- approved by the European Parliament in January and the European Council in June -- EU member states starting in 2016 will be required to ensure that 45 percent of electrical and electronic equipment sold in each country is collected for recycling.

That figure rises to 65 percent collection of all equipment sold by 2019, or an alternative measure of 85 percent of all waste electrical and electronic equipment, or WEEE, generated in the country.

Currently, one-third of WEEE in the European Union is collected under an existing system that targets about 9 pounds of e-waste per capita -- about 2 million tons per year out of around 10 million tons generated annually.

"In these times of economic turmoil and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities come together," EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potonik said.

"We now need to open new collection channels for electronic waste and improve the effectiveness of existing ones. I encourage the member states to meet these new targets before the formal deadline."

The compromise on new rules garnered broad support across the European Union's political parties but was opposed by consumer electronics retailers, who say they will end up bearing the responsibility of collecting and transport the refuse.

Part of the directive is a retailer take-back plan under which "big box" electronic stores will be forced to accept old equipment for free and without buying a new product.

Backers, however, claimed the e-waste rules will actually help businesses by making a uniform policy across the European Union.

Besides generally encouraging recycling and efficiency, the effort is also meant to help boost the European Union's dwindling supplies of rare earths and precious metals, which are crucial in the manufacturing of high-tech devices.

China produces 97 percent of all rare earths, and in March the European Union, along with the United States and Japan, filed a challenge with the World Trade Organization against China's export restrictions on the materials.

EU officials claim China is hoarding 17 rare earths such as cerium, neodymium and dysprosium, as well as tungsten and molybdenum. The materials are used in flat-screen televisions, smartphones, hybrid car batteries, wind turbines, energy-efficient lighting, electronics, cars and petroleum, CNN reported.

Another aim of the measure is curb the outflow of e-waste from Europe to West Africa, where it is illegally dumped and can cause health hazards to poor residents mining the scrap heaps for salvageable material.

Estimates put the amount of e-waste shipped out of Britain at 100,000 tons annually, with 77 percent of the waste ending up in West Africa, primarily Ghana and Nigeria, the BBC reported.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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