Is the European Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment plastics management really sustainable?

In March 2021, a member of NONTOX consortium, “Università degli Studi della Campania Luigi Vanvitelli”, published a scientific paper on Waste Management, one of the most important peer review journal in the area of resource recovery from wastes. The study evaluated the environmental performances of the European management of plastics deriving from Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), by developing a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a standardised methodology able to quantify sustainability related to a product (good or service) in an holistic and objective way.

Plastic fractions play a crucial role in the WEEE management, for their high amount (up to 30% of total WEEE) and for the important potential benefits obtainable from their proper recycling. Unfortunately, resource recovery from WEEE plastics is characterised by technical difficulties and environmental concerns, mainly deriving from their complex composition: they are engineering polymers containing heavy metals, additives and brominated flame-retardants. The management of these challenging plastics is further complicated by the large exportation outside Europe, which generally means an unknown fate of the waste, and the utilization of sub-standard treatments, such as open dumping and uncontrolled burning.

The just published study investigated three alternative current management scenarios for WEEE plastics. The first, named “ideal”, assumed a complete compliance with the European Directives, where collected plastic streams are totally treated by means of the best options currently available. The other “real” scenarios took into account plastic waste disposal into legal or illegal landfills as well as their exportation from Europe to undeveloped countries.

The ideal scenario allows a quantification of the maximum achievable plastic recovery for each WEEE category, indicating those with the lowest values (Screen&Monitors, Small Equipment+Small IT and Telecommunication Equipment, and Lamps) due to their higher content of brominated polymers, which strongly limit the conventional mechanical recycling. These categories could receive major advantages by the development of innovative recycling processes, as those investigated in the framework of NONTOX project.

The LCA results highlighted the awful impacts in terms of human health deriving from WEEE plastic exportation, which implies a huge release of harmful substances into the environment. This indicates the necessity of providing economic incentives for European recyclers and supporting an increase of the related treatment capacity. In the meantime, it is crucial that the European Union operates to improve the quality of infrastructures that receive waste plastics and allowing the exportation only to facilities able to perform sufficiently sustainable treatments.

Source: Cardamone, G.F., Ardolino, F., Arena, U. 2021. About the environmental sustainability of the European management of WEEE plastics. Waste Management, 126, 119-132.  Full text available at: