The export of second-hand products, including vehicles, from Europe to Africa has the potential to bring significant benefits to both regions. The trade in used goods offers EU economies a gateway to global markets, promotes reuse and helps reduce resource consumption by extending product lifespan. At the same time, if the exported products are in good condition and do not constitute illegal waste exports, Africa’s emerging economies benefit from increased access to cheaper products.
However, receiving countries are too often left to handle the end-of-life stage of imported used goods without adequate support once these inevitably turn into waste. Additionally, products shipped for reuse are sometimes non-functional or waste-like. This can create negative social and environmental impacts that risk outweighing the benefits of the second-hand trade.
A potential solution to this problem lies in Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) fees, a contribution paid by producers to help support products’ waste management costs, including financing adequate collection and treatment infrastructures. Since their introduction in the late 1990s, EPR schemes have been key in promoting a sound waste management process. Moreover, EPR schemes can support the transition to a circular economy by holding producers accountable for the end-of-life of their products, incentivising circular design and financing the establishment of waste management infrastructures.
EPR schemes are applied across the EU for a range of products, including electric and electronic devices, batteries, packaging and, to a certain extent, vehicles. National schemes can also cover additional streams such as textiles. EPR systems are also increasingly extending to Southeast Asia and Africa, yet their implementation on a global scale is still fragmented and not aligned with international trade streams.
For instance, when second-hand goods travel across borders outside the EU, the associated EPR fees are too often retained in exporting countries. This deprives importing countries of adequate financial support to manage the products once they inevitably reach their end of life. They need to be collected, disassembled, repaired, decontaminated, recycled, or finally disposed of.
New research on the exports of used electronics and vehicles from the EU to Africa estimates that every year African economies miss out on € 340 – 380 million in EPR fees associated with second-hand electronics and on € 294.6 – 409.4 million in EPR fees for second-hand vehicles. These estimations are conservative, notably as the data on shipments for reuse are not properly captured and differentiated from waste exports.
The fact that a significant amount of EPR fees is retained in Europe even though the associated products are shipped for reuse to third countries puts additional strain on already struggling receiving economies, where there are limited financial resources for collection, refurbishment and recycling, and informal landfilling and incineration are common.
These challenges are confirmed by two case studies accompanying the research: the first one focused on Lapaz, a suburb of Accra, Ghana, which is a major hub for imported second-hand goods, including clothing, electronics and furniture; the second one looked at imported second-hand cars in Nigeria, which is the largest destination of imported used vehicles in Africa. At an event organised ahead of the World Circular Economy Forum 2023 to present the study, researchers and campaigners from Europe and Africa called on EU legislators and national governments to remediate this situation and ensure that EPR fees collected from producers in Europe follow the products exported for reuse beyond EU borders.
As EPR contributions are internalised in the final price of the products covered by the schemes, consumers ultimately pay the fees. In exchange, consumers and producers can expect a sound waste management of the items donated for reuse or discarded at collection points, no matter where the end-of-life treatment occurs.
Moreover, the upcoming revisions of the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive and the WEEE Directive provide distinct possibilities to scrutinize current Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) systems and align them towards optimizing the circularity potential of electronic devices and automobiles introduced into the market, even considering their potential for reuse outside the European Union.