SPAIN (El Pais/R.Mendez) When consumers buy any product that has a cable or runs on batteries (a quartz watch, a cellphone, a computer, a toaster, a refrigerator and so on), they pay a fee that helps finance a recycling plan to ensure that the heavy metals contained in these items will not pollute the environment. Yet six years after the pertinent legislation went into effect, and despite the annual €360 million that consumers pump into the system, the electronic waste treatment plants are practically empty. Most of the gadgets and appliances end up in illegal scrapyards or else get exported to developing countries as used goods. Now the state attorney in charge of environmental affairs, Antonio Vercher, and the Civil Guard have launched a far-reaching investigation into the scheme; so far 60 people face charges for scrapping refrigerators without the proper controls.
The electronic waste treatment plant in Campo Real (Madrid) is only open mornings because there isn't that much work to do. The facility opened in 2004 on a 10-million-euro investment. Since the European objective is to recycle at least four kilograms of electronic waste per capita a year, the math was easy to do: "In the Madrid region, we should be treating around 24,000 tons of waste a year; yet this year we'll be getting a quarter of that, around 6,000 tons. Where is the rest?" asks Pablo Balaguera, sales director for Recytel, as he walks around the huge piles of old cellphones, TV sets, computers and even automatic money dispensers.
This is where these items are legally taken apart; each type of waste is treated according to existing regulations, and the leftover iron gets sold. Meanwhile, the plant in Palencia that recycles electronic waste from the regions of Castilla y León, Cantabria and Asturias only receives 10 percent of the products sold on the market, according to Mariano Arana, the plant manager.
There are 20 such plants in Spain, and they all report similar situations. For years they have been asking themselves the same question: where are the rest of the discarded products?
The answer is: they are outside the law's reach. In 2009, 702,000 tons of electric and electronic products were put on the market, yet only 124,987 ended up at waste disposal plants, according to the Environment Ministry. And while it is true that not everything that gets sold in a year is necessarily going to be recycled (products may last several years), the enormous gap - recycled goods only represent 17 percent of what gets sold - suggests that something fishy is going on.
Rafael Serrano, of the Ecolec Foundation, the country's main system for recycling household appliances, admits that "there are leaks." "When someone buys a refrigerator, the delivery company or the seller have the obligation to bring the old one in for disposal, but a lot of things get lost along the way," he says.
The recycling sector complains that there are delivery companies, salesmen and even local authorities in cahoots with junkyards that pay them more than the treatment plants do, since their operating costs are lower. Even appliances left in designated drop-off points can end up at a junkyard, and there are even those who hold that there are plants that fail to dispose of what they receive, and instead take it to the local scrap dealer.
The attorney's report, to which EL PAÍS had access, underscores "the very negative impact of this situation on the environment." The attorney writes that in January 2010, following an anonymous tip-off, an investigation found that "there is an ongoing storage of leftover appliances by junk dealers" with no license. These items contain iron and copper, which have some market value, but they also release cadmium, lead, chlorine, mercury and harmful PVCs.
The report goes on to say that once the junk dealers extract the valuable metal parts, the other elements pose a serious environmental risk because of the inevitable leaks into the soil and the uncontrolled emissions of CFC gases, which all refrigerators contain. Vercher concludes that "the dispersal of potentially highly dangerous waste across the national territory is absolute." Furthermore, the attorney detected a chain of irregularities "in the delivery of obsolete appliances to the treatment plants [...] and in the containers that leave these plants for export to non-EU countries, where they will be reutilized."
On December 22 last year, the Civil Guard raided Cañada Real, a shantytown in Madrid, and three other spots where refrigerators were being scrapped and CFC gases released into the air. Around 60 arrests were made against delivery people, junk dealers and workers at storage and treatment plants.