International E-Waste Day 2022: “Recycle it all, no matter how small”

Interview with Pascal Leroy, Director General of the WEEE Forum: “This year 24 million tonnes of small e-waste will be produced worldwide ‒ about four times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza”

The International E-Waste Day, the World Day dedicated to raising awareness and motivate consumers towards proper disposal of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), will be celebrated around the world on 14 October. Ahead of this important date, Erion interviewed Pascal Leroy, Director General of the WEEE Forum, the international association representing 46 Extended Producer Responsibility organisations for the management of e-waste worldwide.

The focus of the 2022 edition will be on small items of e-waste, under the slogan “Recycle it all, no matter how small!”. What led you to this slogan?
One of the factors was definitely the need to make people aware of the issue. In European homes, up to 5 kg of small WEEE per person accumulates in drawers, boxes, cupboards and garages. I am talking about cell phones, toasters, electric toothbrushes, but also chargers and electric cables associated with Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE). It is a bad habit that often coexists with the equally bad habit of disposing of small WEEE by throwing it into the household garbage bin without thinking that many of these products, as well as their batteries, contain hazardous substances that have a strong impact on the environment. The choice of this slogan is also linked to a recent study published by the European Commission on the importance of avoiding the dispersion in the environment of small WEEE and promote the recycling of the materials it contains.

What kind of figures are we talking about?
The UN has estimated that in 2022, 24.5 million tonnes of small e-waste will be produced worldwide; an amount equal to four times the weight of the Great Pyramid of Giza. In Europe alone, each year the amount of this waste that ends up in the household garbage bin is about 1.4 kg per inhabitant. This is not only an environmental problem, but also an economic loss. Just think that from one tonne of printed circuit boards found in many e-devices, 800 grams of silver, 150 grams of gold and 50 grams of palladium could be recovered.

What are the main highlights of IEWD 2022?
We will present a study conducted by the WEEE Forum and Extended Producer Responsibility organisations, including Erion, which investigates consumer behaviour and the amount of e-waste accumulated in households or disposed of incorrectly. We will release the numbers and results of this research on 14 October.

Every year, IEWD brings together a wide range of contributions such as testimonies, campaigns and activities from all parts of the world. What has changed from previous editions?
Certainly, the number of the subjects involved, and the type of initiatives planned. If in 2021 the organisations from different parts of the world that took part were 170, this year we expect to exceed 200. We have simplified the registration form on the event website; the hashtag #ewasteday now lives a life of its own and high-level decision makers such as the European Commission and the United Nations continue to support the Day with press releases, statements and special messages.

As an industry insider, do you think there is more awareness among citizens about the importance of properly disposing of their e-waste?
In all honesty, I do not think so, although I admit I have no concrete evidence of this. I am sure it is a matter of mentality. There are still many people who do not know how to dispose of their WEEE properly, as well as those who, despite knowing better, continue to do so incorrectly simply because it is a habit. The real challenge for those who organise campaigns like IEWD is to try to change this way of thinking. Continuing on the path of raising awareness is crucial.

What about European countries? What do you think they are doing to reach the collection targets set by the EU? And what could be done?
Both the authorities and the Producer Responsibility Organisations, such as Erion, have invested enormous resources in information campaigns on WEEE collection. Despite these efforts, only a few countries manage to reach the target set by the EU, which, I would like to remind you, is 65 percent of the average EEE placed on the market in the last three years. This target is not fit for purpose because it does not consider circularity. The circular economy promotes virtuous practices such as product reuse, preparation for reuse and remanufacturing. This puts us at a crossroads that I would call paradoxical: the consumer can decide to extend the useful life of his/her product as much as possible or choose to discard it by taking it to a collection centre. The first option is much more useful, but only the second allows to increase the collection rate and thus get closer to the set target. From this perspective, trying at all costs to get closer to the target is simply wrong.