Leading article: A dirty and illegal trade

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The European Union’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive, which became law in Britain two years ago, was intended to ensure that such waste was disposed of safely. Special recycling plants were equipped for the purpose. As our report today establishes, detail by grimy detail, laudable intention and actual practice are still very different things.

A sizeable proportion of the discarded goods that people take to the dump or recycling site, in the belief that they are being responsible consumers, is – it turns out – not recycled at all. It is sold in bulk for a pittance to companies which dispatch it to less developed countries for re-sale. Where the goods are not in working order, this is illegal. E-waste that no longer functions is classified as hazardous and may not be exported to countries outside the OECD.

Illegal or not, however, this is what is happening. Non-functioning goods are mixed up with functioning goods, crated and shipped to become someone else’s problem. It is only when they arrive – in the case we investigated, the destination was Nigeria – that the goods are properly sorted. What is working goes to the thriving second-hand markets; what is not ends up on one of many toxic dumps, to be picked over by scavengers.

All this is clearly a long way away from the intention of the European directive. Safe recycling in Britain, however, is relatively expensive; exporting the waste saves local councils money. Always strapped for cash, their duties to keep council tax down and protect the environment are at odds. And the framing of the law makes this simpler. With the distinction between functioning and non-functioning electrical goods easily blurred – and much, in our throwaway society, abandoned when it might quite easily be repaired – the economics point only one way.

At the destination, of course, it is less a matter of economics than public health, even survival. For the pennies they receive from their scavenging, the impoverished children of Lagos and elsewhere are paying with their lives. This is a dirty trade that Europe’s action was supposed to curb, and it is shameful that Britain has any part in it at all.

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