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The BBC's Tim Hirsch
"A million tonnes of waste piles up each year in Britain"
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Sunday, 30 April, 2000, 23:51 GMT 00:51 UK
Scaling the electro-scrap mountain
Scrap heap
Tonnes of electrical goods are dumped each year
By BBC environment correspondent Tim Hirsch

Mountains of scrap electrical goods dumped every year are being targeted by European officials in Brussels

In the UK alone, nearly a million tonnes of so-called "electro-scrap" is produced annually, and less than half is recycled.

Most of the recycling which does go on involves white goods - fridges, washing machines and so on - which have enough metal content to provide some economic value.

At a huge scrap recovery plant at Willesden in west London, lorries laden with these appliances, mixed in with old cars, arrive in a constant stream to load a shredder which separates useable steel from concrete, non-ferrous metals and a variety of other materials - some of them toxic.

'Polluter pays'

Andrew Mason of Meyer Parry Recycling explains that while money can be made from reclaimed white goods, the large amount of plastic and small metal content of televisions, videos and computers gives them little scrap value. He said they end up being dumped straight into landfill sites.

What the European Commission wants to do is to make the electrical industry pay for the collection and disposal of all products when they are finished with. It wants at least 70% of the material to be recycled.

The hope is that manufacturers would then be given an incentive to design products with more re-usable and durable parts.

The industry says it is not against the idea, and accepts the "polluter pays" principle that lies behind it.

But it is objecting strongly to two main elements. First, it complains that while local authorities would do most of the actual collecting of waste items, business would have to pay. It says that amounts to writing a blank cheque.

Cold comfort: fridges can be recycled
Secondly, electronics companies are objecting to another part of the measure which would ban the use of certain poisonous materials such as lead, cadmium and mercury in their products.

They claim this is being done without an assessment of whether the alternatives would be any less harmful for the environment.

A group of corporations in the United States feel so strongly about this that they say the European directive could be illegal under international trade rules.

In the background is a warning that it could be challenged through the World Trade Organisation.

Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth says big business is trying to use free-trade arguments to prevent higher environmental standards. He fears that their lobbying could water the proposal down.

The latest version of the directive has been long-delayed. It appears that it has been caught up in arguments between environment and industry officials in Brussels - electronics firms know it will eventually come into force, and many have set up special departments to prepare for complying with it.

But EU decision-making grinds exceedingly slowly, and in the meantime the electro-scrap mountain continues to grow.

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