Karen Coleman: We are a shower of wasters who must do a lot better
The other day when I was cleaning my house I realised I've been hoarding enough broken and out-dated electronic equipment to open my own electrical store. I found a box of old mobile phones buried beneath a stack of computer cables, docking stations, monitors, recording gear, microphone leads and a load of other electronic rubbish well past its sell-by date.
One of the phones was a fancy pink one that I had used for an investigative documentary I did on the illegal sex trade for TV3 several years ago. I was torn between sentimentality and environmental responsibility as I wrestled over whether I should keep it or send it off for recycling.
I was so horrified by the size of my own electronic waste that I conducted a brief survey of my nearest and dearest to see if they were any better. Unfortunately, they weren't.
From old fridges in garages to ancient television sets in attics and enough computer cables to string from Cork to New York, we collectively had an unsustainable electronic mountain.
I concluded that we were a shower of wasters or, more precisely, e-wasters.
But new EU rules mean that soon we will all have to become more responsible about what we do with our old laptops, mobile phones and other redundant electronic gear. Last Monday an update of the EU's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment [WEEE] directive came into force.
From 2014, EU countries will have to do a lot more to collect and recycle the millions of tonnes of e-waste generated in Europe every year. Retail outlets will be obliged to take back much more of our old electronic equipment and we will all be encouraged to bring our e-waste to recycling facilities.
The new rules state that by 2016, 45pc of electronic equipment sold in EU countries will be collected and treated for either recycling or disposal. That figure is to increase to 65pc by 2019. The rules governing how electrical and electronic waste is exported will also be strengthened with far greater penalties for those who export illegal shipments of unusable e-waste.
This is good news for those of us who like to change our electronic gadgets every few years. We should see an increase in recycling facilities and a reduction in the illegal dumping of dangerous e-waste in developing countries.
According to a UN Environment programme report published last February, the dumping of illegal e-waste in West Africa is a huge problem. It looked at Ghana, as one example, and concluded that around 30pc of electrical and electronic waste sent there from Europe was unusable. The temptation to bend the rules can lead to dodgy practices.
Here's what can happen.
Let's say you have an old computer that's still working but its technology is out-dated and you want to get rid of it. When you take it to an electronic recycling dump in theory many of its parts could be reused. It is supposed to be checked and, if usable, would be eligible for export.
In many cases these reusable computers will be shipped to West African states such as Ghana and Nigeria where they will be stripped, recycled and sold on. It's a win-win situation. You get rid of your old computer and somebody in Ghana makes money recycling it.
But let's say your computer is not reusable and that it contains corrosive material that needs to be disposed of properly. It should then be classified as e-waste that requires stringent disposal measures.
That's where the problems arise.
The transportation of hazardous e-waste is subject to very strict regulations under the Basel Convention that requires consent from the various countries involved in its disposal. E-waste has to be properly labelled and checked and the recipient countries are obliged to dispose of it responsibly.
But according to the UN report, "significant volumes" of redundant electrical and electronic equipment are being shipped from Europe to developing countries and this e-waste is deliberately mislabelled as reusable material. Those involved in these illegal shipments circumvent the strict regulations governing the disposal of this hazardous waste that ends up being dumped in places like Ghana and Nigeria.
The report stopped short of naming and shaming EU countries and operators that are breaching the e-waste disposal rules and it said nothing about Ireland. But the UN did investigate the ports of Amsterdam and Antwerp which are major hubs for the export of used electrical and electronic equipment to West Africa. They found that shipments of e-waste are often declared as "second-hand goods", "private goods", "for charities" and "for personal use".
In some cases, e-waste gets loaded on to used vehicles where it is hidden from customs officials. The UN estimates that European countries are dumping a staggering 250,000 tonnes of illegal e-waste every year in West Africa.
The lack of resources and the absence of a European-wide control mechanism mean it's difficult to police this illegal practice. As a result, toxic material can end up in dumping sites in Nigeria and Ghana where desperately poor people scavenge for scraps of metal and anything else of value.
Children are often used to pick their way through swathes of electronic waste and they can end up with serious spinal and other injuries. Poisonous substances are frequently released when old cables are burnt to extract copper or when batteries are recycled.
The monetary rewards for this hazardous work is derisory. The UN says a significant portion of these 'e-waste workers' earn less than $1.25 a day.
That's a sobering thought when you look at the mountain of e-waste we generate in Europe every year. It's also got me thinking about my own electronic waste that's waiting to be taken to the recycling centre. I'm now wondering how the good stuff will get sorted from the dodgy gear that may be of no use to anyone.
I just hope the bad stuff doesn't end up on some waste heap in Africa causing health problems for others and negating my own efforts to be environmentally responsible.