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Towards circular e-waste management: How can digitalisation help?

Circular economy / DISCUSSION PAPER

Date: 30/09/2021
E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world. Most of it is mishandled, leading to more pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of scarce and critical materials. Digitalisation can go a long way to establishing a circular management of e-waste and, thereby, a circular and sustainable economy. 

Digital solutions such as AI, blockchain or robotics can help to better collect and treat our discarded phones, televisions and computers, or to prevent them from becoming waste in the first place, by making information easier to share, improving processes and connecting the relevant actors across the value chain.

However, despite their potential, these new technologies can also present challenges. The uptake of digital solutions by waste operators and producer responsibility organisations (PROs) are often hindered by costs and the EU’s fragmented market for e-waste management. Concerns over data protection can create obstacles to accessing and sharing data of relevance to circular e-waste management. If not steered properly, digital transformation can also lead to negative side effects, such as more e-waste. For e-waste management to become more circular and digital, policy must back it up. 

As the EU explores ways to promote the twin digital and green transition, improving e-waste management provides a timely and important case in practice. The EU should implement the following policy recommendations: 

  1.  Create a fully circular value chain for e-waste in the EU by 2030 and pursue the goal of establishing a circular e-waste system at the global level by 2050. The EU should become a global leader in using digitalisation to improve waste prevention, collection and recycling and minimise exports. 
  2. Use EU regulation and soft law to develop rules and standards for e-waste data management. This entails finalising the common European data space, developing common rules on using DPPs in electronics, and developing guidelines on how PROs and waste operators could manage their data. 
  3. Use EU financial instruments under the 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Framework and Next Generation EU recovery instrument to support PROs and waste operators in installing and deploying the latest technologies to better manage e-waste.
  4. Establish a single market for e-waste to incentivise private investments in the uptake of digital solutions for e-waste management. 
  5. Use digital tools to enhance the enforcement of e-waste-related policies, to end illegal waste shipments and other mishandlings of e-waste.

This publication is part of the project “E-waste and the creation of a digital circular economy”, which explores the role of digitalisation in improving the management of electrical waste. It is supported by the WEEE Forum and funded by SENS eRecycling. 

Read the full paper here.
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