Destruction of unsold electronics is rampant across Europe. Yet the European Commission remains in denial about one of the most environmentally harmful market practices and is dragging its feet on a ban in the EU’s upcoming Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation (ESPR).
Sonja Leyvraz and Bich Dao report.
Fresh out of the factory, into the trash – this is the story of many of our electronic appliances and devices. In 2022, tonnes of brand new, unsold electronics with estimated untapped values of 3.7 billion Euros were destroyed in Europe due to overstocking, returns, obsolescence, or cosmetic imperfections, instead of getting resold or donated.
Fueled by a growing market for disposable tech, this practice contributes to the bloc’s deepening e-waste crisis. According to Eurostat latest data, 4.9 million tonnes of e-waste was collected just in 2021 in Europe, a portion of which is undoubtedly products in mint condition.
This represents an unnecessary waste on multiple levels: firstly, many of the goods are perfectly functionable and could be put to use; secondly, the entire environmental footprint of the devices including the precious resources they contain goes waste; and lastly, there is a missed opportunity for Europe’s growing reuse and refurbishment sector.
Waste by design
The chase for profit margins in a hyper-competitive industry has led to business models with built-in destructive practices as a cost-cutting measure. Pressure to destroy goods often comes from online marketplaces who aim to cut costs while acting as intermediaries between consumers and retailers.
It is, for example, cheaper for sellers to dump returned products than putting it back on the (virtual or physical) shelves. In the Netherlands, a third of returned consumer electronics are not resold at all, but instead are sent back to manufacturers or directly disposed. A company that offers product destruction services states that products, including consumer electronics, are often destroyed even though there is nothing wrong with them – simply because it is cheaper and faster than inspecting, repackaging and reselling.