EU Policy must ensure producers are held globally responsible for electronics waste, researchers urge

It might seem sustainable to ship second-hand electronics from the EU to Nigeria to be re-used. However, one-third of the TVs, computers and other assorted items that end up in the African country do not function at all, and the rest often do not last long. They become e-waste, which is toxic to human health and the environment. EU circular economy policy ensures this waste is appropriately processed locally and nationally, but overlooks loophole exports to countries in the Global South, researchers from the Netherlands, Nigeria and the United Kingdom have found. They have developed an international action plan to ensure European producers are held responsible for the sound management of exports of e-waste and second-hand products, no matter where in the world they end up.

Electronic waste on the back of a truck
Photo: iStock

The current European regulatory system - Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) - holds electronics producers and importers responsible for the treatment of e-waste in Europe under the 'polluter pays' principle, but this responsibility to manage toxic e-waste is shifted elsewhere when a secondhand item is shipped. The authors of the new transdisciplinary study published in Business Strategy and Development argue that such responsibility should extend globally, with consideration for circularity, sustainability, and fairness.

Loopholes allow e-waste to leave the EU

As it currently stands, an electronics producer is no longer responsible once the e-waste or their used products enter another jurisdiction. “This can drive the shipment of waste to destinations that might not have the capacity for sound processing and management," explains lead author Kaustubh Thapa, a researcher at Utrecht University. Electronics contain many potentially toxic materials, meaning correct disposal is essential to prevent damage to human health and the environment. 

The study specifically considered shipments of second-hand electronics to Nigeria. While it is illegal to ship e-waste from Europe to West Africa, many loopholes exist. “For example, when a used or second-hand phone is sent to Nigeria, it is often non-functional or soon will be,” explains co-author Olawale Olayide, professor of circularity and sustainability at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. However, the current EPR system does not hold European producers responsible for taking care of this kind of waste in Nigeria. 

The dud electronics instead end up being burnt or dumped on the streets, dumpsites, and landfills, harming both human health and the environment. “This unequal exchange exacerbates global inequality and harm in the name of environmental performance in Europe,” says co-author Pauline Deutz, professor at the University of Hull in the UK.

A blueprint for change

The research outlines a Blueprint for Ultimate Producer Responsibility (UPR) co-created by four researchers and twenty-four electronic waste experts from nine countries. “UPR takes into account international trade of used products and includes a fair financial transfer mechanism from EU-based EPR programmes to countries that import second-hand products from Europe,” says co-author Walter Vermeulen, associate professor at Utrecht University. 

Based on their research findings, the team have also launched a science-based petition that calls for making European producers responsible for managing their e-waste internationally. The petition demands that the European Commission and the government of Nigeria organise effective repair and recycling for exported second-hand products and e-waste via Ultimate Producer Responsibility (UPR).

“By extending the producer’s responsibility to countries like Nigeria we can create a more just society that could also help create more circularity,” reflects Thapa “Our proposal is to extend this polluter’s responsibility globally, so producers’ are ultimately responsible for their waste where ever in the world it may end up This unequal trade is unfair and tends to increase injustices and inequalities even more.”

Thapa, K., Vermeulen, W. J., Deutz, P., & Olayide, O. (2022). Transboundary movement of waste review: From binary towards a contextual framing. Waste Management & Research, 0734242X221105424.