Italy is preparing its National Recovery and Resilience Plan to modernize the country thanks to the resources made available by the Next Generation EU (EUR 750 billion in total). We may finally be facing the long-awaited ecological transition of the Green Deal. In your view, what role should the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment sector play in this green revolution?
The European Commission’s plan to combat climate change includes a series of measures aimed at making our habits and the way we produce energy less impactful on the environment by promoting a more efficient use of resources and a circular economic model. We are certainly facing a new, imminent transition and the collaborative approach, the ability to design innovative models and investments in technology are key pillars for building an economically and environmentally sustainable society. And a society capable of combining these needs is a thriving society. A model of society that we need even more now. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to question ourselves and our way of life. How much longer will the exploitation of nature and of the natural resources at our disposal be sustainable? How sustainable is our way of living and working? What will be the world that we will leave to our future generations, to our children? I would like to be able to say that we have no faults, that as human beings who have populated the planet just for the last tiny fraction of geological time we have no responsibility. But I wouldn’t be honest. We can, however, try to remedy this, and we must do so using all the instruments at our disposal and work to create new ones. Abandoning the take-make-dispose model for one based on the circular economy is the first step to take; the ecological transition is played out also in this field and to this end the role of recycling is fundamental. As industry professionals we have known for a long time that we cannot conceive waste as such, but we must treat it for what it is: a resource. Compared to the total waste, WEEE represents a small percentage, but with the advancement of technology, the amount of waste deriving from electrical and electronic products will also grow accordingly. The United Nations Global E-Waste Monitor calculated that 53.6 million metric tons of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, an astounding figure which increased by 21% in just five years. In addition, if you think that only 17.4% of those millions of tons have been collected and recycled properly, you have a rough picture of what still needs to be done. Europe is the continent most attentive to the treatment processes of this waste with the aim of recovering Secondary Raw Materials, but there is still a lack of strategies capable of increasing the collection targets and cutting-edge technologies for the recovery of the most important secondary raw materials, so-called Critical Raw Materials. Getting back to the initial question, I believe that the role of our sector is very important for the ecological transition, provided that investments are made to synergistically enhance the entire chain by completing the collection infrastructures, improving logistics, creating second-level plants. On this point I like to quote the example of the Exceed program, launched by Erion, whose logic is precisely this: collecting Professional WEEE in a pro-active way; a philosophy that should move the whole country and those in the industry. It is a challenge that we must meet in order to support a real ecological transition.
You spoke about the increasing volumes of electronic waste worldwide. In Europe alone, WEEE represents one of the fastest growing waste streams, rising at an annual rate of 2%. Are we ready to properly manage this huge amount of e-waste?
As I said earlier, there is a lot to be done in terms of upgrading the structures. The NRRP already provides in Mission 2 the “construction of new plants and modernization of existing recycling plants for the closure of the waste cycle with the production of secondary raw materials”. If we move from theory to concrete actions on the ground, we would have a good chance of being able to collect, treat and put back into circulation ever greater quantities of material. But we also need to be realistic. It is not simple and it will not be done overnight. The reasons are many and varied. Suffice it to say that in Italy we are faced with a system that runs at different speeds (as highlighted by the 2020 Annual Report of the CdC RAEE), with the best performance in Northern Italy (10 kg per capita in Valle d’Aosta) which gradually decreases from the Centre to the South (3 kg per capita in Campania). The non-widespread distribution of municipal collection centres is objective, just as the presence of parallel waste streams and illegal disposal practices. These problems, in addition to the many gaps in terms of information and public awareness, place Italy still far from the EU target of 65% of the quantities placed on the market. There is a lot to do, and it will be necessary to implement innovative and concrete solutions. It is not enough to imagine doing, we need to start doing. In this sense, I absolutely agree with the words of the young activist Greta Thunberg: “Yes, we do need hope, of course, we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere”. When we speak about action I cannot fail to mention that the European waste hierarchy requires us to work on waste prevention first and foremost. For this reason, before we even ask ourselves whether we are ready to manage the increase in WEEE we have to ask ourselves if we will be able to prevent its generation, with virtuous actions such as extending the life of products, preparing for reuse, eco-design, remanufacturing and so on. For a real transition to the circular economy, you cannot think of acting piecemeal and unsystematically, but it is necessary to create a system and take care of the product from the design phase up to its recycling into a new material.
You mentioned one of Europe’s stated objectives for preventing the amount of e-waste: extending the life of the products from which they derive, as well as increasing their repairability, reuse and recycling. Are there other goals?
If we manage to just make these three “Rs” become reality, we would be well under way along the path to preventing e-waste and on that of the physical and economic recovery of production materials. The UN has also calculated that globally, in 2019, the failure to recycle materials such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value recoverable materials from WEEE, caused a loss of 57 billion dollars. These are resources that we continue to take from the planet and that could instead be recycled from e-waste. Contrary to what happens in other European countries, in Italy remanufacturing is still almost non-existent, i.e. the reconditioning of both used products and WEEE: expanding this activity and developing the willingness to purchase this kind of goods would give a big boost to the circular economy. Finally, I believe that it is necessary to keep up the commitment in the field of Research and Innovation, a fundamental sector for the development of cutting-edge solutions: from the eco-design of products to the ‘green’ processes to create them. Erion has a Projects & Innovation department, which we specifically wanted for this purpose: in my opinion it is a significant plus because it uses the technical skill of experts in WEEE management to support companies in the design of more sustainable EEE.
The latest Eurostat data from the Third Report on the Circular Economy in Italy, tell us that compared to the 8.7 metric tons of EEE placed on the EU27 market in 2018, only 3.9 tons were collected, with a recycling start-up rate of 40%. What are, in your opinion, the reasons behind such low figures?
Those are the ones that we Producers – I speak as President of Erion WEEE but also as Head of Service, South Europe – Panasonic Customer Service Europe – and industry professionals have always denounced and which still weigh on the national WEEE system. Firstly, there is the interception of e-waste by parties outside the official system, which every year causes huge losses of materials that could be sent for proper recycling. To understand the situation, we are talking about people who try to obtain only the most easily ‘accessible’ secondary raw materials from WEEE, without worrying about the environmental consequences of their activities. A real environmental crime that actors like Erion fight every day by ensuring quality treatment for each WEEE managed. It is a service we do for the environment and for the citizen, and that we ask to be able to continue to do within a stricter regulatory framework with effective controls and exemplary sanctions. Then there is an even more dramatic phenomenon: the illegal export of electronic waste from the industrialized West to ‘emerging’ countries, which have now become our open-air landfill. I am thinking, for example, of Agbogbloshie, in Ghana, where every year around 40,000 tons of e-waste arrive from the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe: waste that we could recycle properly, and that for them becomes an environmental time bomb. This illegal export constitutes a shameful violation of human rights and at the same time prevents our country from reaching the European collection targets. Also for this reason Erion decided to join the Twinning Program of the WEEE Forum: since January 2021 we are twinned with Epron, the most important PRO in Nigeria, with which we will work for the creation of an efficient system for the collection and treatment of WEEE in this African country.
In the first quarter of 2021, Erion WEEE managed a volume of WEEE 18% higher than that of the same 2020 period. Can we talk about resumption of normal service with respect to the health emergency?
In March of last year, the first lockdown caused a fall in the quantities of WEEE managed, mainly due to the closure of the waste collection sites to the public, which however have regularly reopened since the beginning of 2021. In perspective I can imagine that in a few months, when we return to a ‘normal’ level of life and work, the WEEE streams will increase again, and we at Erion are ready to take up the challenge.
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