Spain’s electronic waste mountain

Despite good laws, the nation has one of the worst appliance recycling records in Europe

A worker at a recycling plant outside Madrid.
A worker at a recycling plant outside Madrid.BERNARDO PÉREZ

Electronic waste is out of control in Spain. The amount of discarded electrical and electronic products that goes unrecycled each year could build a four-meter-high wall between Madrid and Barcelona – a distance of 504 kilometers.

Every year, 600,000 tons of refrigerators, freezers and television sets are taken apart at unauthorized plants or cannibalized for parts by mafias armed with sledgehammers.

Other times appliances get ditched on roadsides or dropped at regular city dumps, regardless of the fact that they contain highly hazardous pollutants.

It is not rare to see gang members waiting outside collection points for the workers to go home, then calmly taking away as many appliances as they please

An August report on the illegal trade in waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) by the CWIT consortium, whose members include Interpol and United Nations agencies, puts Spain at the bottom of the recycling effort in Europe, ahead of only Romania and Cyprus.

According to the CWIT report, it is unclear where 80 percent of this waste ends up, a fact that poses serious environmental and health risks, as well as harming the economy.

Since 2005, Spanish appliance manufacturers have been under the obligation to handle the recycling of WEEE, a category that includes everything from medical equipment to heating and cooling installations, home appliances and lamps – basically, almost any product containing wires or batteries.

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That is when the Integral Management Systems (SIGs, in their Spanish acronym) were set up. These non-profits are in charge of organizing the entire recycling process, and consumers fund them with a fee they pay when they purchase a new product. This ranges from between €5 and €30, depending on the appliance.

Last year, ECOLEC, one of the biggest SIGs, representing 50 percent of small and large home appliance manufacturers, handled 67,000 tons of e-waste. But Spain generates more than 750,000 tons annually.

“The difference with other countries is that there is no single authority here monitoring compliance with the rules,” says Matías Rodrigues, director general of ERP España, another e-waste manager. “Those powers have been transferred to regional governments.”

Lack of government action is just one of the dysfunctions in a system riddled with problems. The Environment Ministry, which only responded to questions for this report at the last moment, says it has “detected the deficiencies of the management model that has been applied over recent years” and for this reason has drawn up a new decree that incorporates “measures that will allow  the data about WEEE collection and management to be improved.”

Recycling requires carefully taking the appliances apart.
Recycling requires carefully taking the appliances apart.BERNARDO PÉREZ

While there is no centralized database of information about e-waste in Spain, industry experts figure that about a third of it ends up at unauthorized plants that lack the technology and the trained personnel to guarantee proper reusing and recycling.

Another third ends up in the hands of organized gangs who scavenge for parts with no control of any kind. These industry estimates are only slightly more optimistic than the CWIT report’s own conclusions.

“The decree regulating recycling is very good,” says Luis Palomino, secretary general of ASEGRE, an association of hazardous waste handlers. “The trouble is, there is nobody to go after violators. There is tremendous institutional permissiveness.”

Bad practices

Delivery firms dropping off new appliances do not typically receive any money from product distributors for taking away the old ones, but simply get to keep them as payment. That is how these products normally end up at illegal scrapyards where they fetch higher prices than at authorized plants.

“They sell it to anybody,” says Fermín Rodríguez, manager of Recyberica Ambiental, a company specializing in appliance recycling. Authorized plants, which have to follow complex and expensive treatment procedures, cannot compete with scrap dealers who simply extract the valuable components with no regard for safety.

The decree regulating recycling is very good. The trouble is, there is nobody to go after violators”

Luis Palomino, ASEGRE

Proper treatment involves avoiding environmental pollution from dangerous components found inside the appliances, and also seeks to add value to the various materials that make them up. Authorized plants have the legal obligation to reuse 80 percent of components, including plastic, wood and other materials.

“Normally it’s not profitable. Separating the materials is more costly than what you get for them,” says Rodríguez. “But one of the main goals is to return them to the economic cycle.”

At the Recyberica Ambiental plant in Torrejón de Ardoz (Madrid), four workers wearing safety goggles and thick gloves carefully separate appliance parts on a pallet filled with dozens of used television sets.

This facility has a recycling capacity of 30,000 tons a year, but it barely processes 10,000 tons and was forced to lay off 12 employees this year. “This lack of oversight has environmental costs, but also business costs as well. The profit margin per ton is small, which means we need a lot of volume to stay afloat,” explains Rodríguez.

Collection points

Another major problem facing the industry is the organized criminal groups that systematically steal up to 35 percent of e-waste with almost complete impunity. A report sent by waste handlers to Madrid city authorities, which EL PAIS has had access to, reflects the constant threats that employees at official collection points have to deal with.

It is not unusual to see gang members waiting outside these areas for the workers to go home, then breaking the lock and calmly taking away as many appliances as they please. Plastic gets resold for €200 a ton, steel for €300 a ton, and aluminum for €800 to €1,000 a ton, while copper fetches top dollar at €4,500 a ton.

The illegal dump in Valdemingómez, in the southeast of Madrid, is a prime destination for the remains of appliances that have gone under the sledgehammer. Here and there, sticking out among the piles of trash, are TV sets, refrigerators and other discarded appliances in full view.

It is estimated that the amount of these kind of remains in the world will surpass 65 million tons in 2017 – enough to fill a line of 30-ton trucks stretching around the planet. Meanwhile, the consumption of these appliances goes on growing faster in the developed world than anywhere else.

English version by Susana Urra.

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