The Netherlands has the ambition to achieve a fully circular economy by 2050. In this report, we analyse what such a transition could mean for low- and middle-income countries that are connected to the Netherlands through international value chains, focusing on transboundary trade in discarded electrical and electronic equipment. We identify conditions for positive impact and discuss opportunities, risks and dilemmas. This study is part of a broader project that analyses transboundary effects of the circular economy transition in the Netherlands.
Current impacts of transboundary trade
Around one fifth of discarded electronics - second-hand electrical and electronic equipment and e-waste - in the Netherlands is exported, around one quarter of which illegally. For receiving countries, the main drivers are socioeconomic benefits such as consumer demand for affordable, high quality products and the ability to earn a living from trading and processing electronics. At the same time, as a result of unsafe processing in those countries, this also results in environmental pollution, public health risks and material losses.
Effects of a circular economy transition
The Dutch transition towards a circular economy is likely to affect the amount and composition of the discarded electronics that is exported to low- and middle-income countries. The effects for the receiving countries could be both positive and negative, depending on 1) the type of circular economy strategy in the Netherlands; 2) whether or not and, if so, how low- and middle-income countries will become part become of the Dutch circular economy; for instance, due to lifetime extension, refurbishment and e-waste processing in those countries; and 3) the way e-waste is processed there. Negative effects may be limited through investments in safe and environmentally sound e-waste management in the receiving countries; robust registration, reporting and monitoring systems for exports of discarded electronics; and effective enforcement of existing international regulations as well as greater restrictions on the export of worthless and hazardous parts.
A just transition requires an inclusive approach
Circular economy strategies that fail to address the interlinkages between human development, pollution and resource efficiency, will at best miss an opportunity for an inclusive transition, and at worst undermine the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Instead of trying to replace informal jobs on which many people in receiving countries depend, the local waste collectors, dismantlers and recyclers can be supported and encouraged to adopt safer techniques and to gain access to better equipment. Transforming the existing informal networks of e-waste management is key, while putting mechanisms in place that ensure the livelihoods of workers are not negatively affected.