Just 15 minutes after the recycling centre closes, thieves are jumping the fence

In the surveillance images, ARC can see that it is often the same people who repeatedly steal electronic waste. This picture was taken last week at Borgervænget Recycling Centre in Østerbro. ARC has dropped locked containers as changing the locks became too expensive. Illustration: ARC

If you imagine a burglar, you will probably think of a thief sneaking in the dead of the night with laptops, flat screens, and other valuables in his arms. But this is not exactly how it goes at Denmark’s recycling centres.

When the last employee at Borgervænget Recycling Centre in the Copenhagen district of Østerbro leaves at 6 p.m., it often takes just a quarter of an hour before the first burglar shows up and jumps the fence to rummage through the citizens’ electronic waste.

Laptops and cables are especially susceptible to theft from the recycling centre, but stolen items also include batteries, phones, and flat screens.

According to Kasper Dibbern Petersen, recycling manager at waste management company ARC, which, among other things, operates the centre on Borgervænget in Østerbro, the recycling centres in Copenhagen suffer from burglary almost daily. Surveillance cameras reveal that it is often the same people who break in again and again. And despite the fact that the company reports the incidents to the police every time, in their experience, the police very rarely does something about it. At times, ARC has tried to lock the electronic waste inside overnight, but they have now given it up, he says.

“When we do it, it gets quite expensive, because then they break the lock or destroy the cage.”

“That’s why we’ve chosen not to do it anymore—we’d actually rather have them take the electronics. It costs us between DKK 5,000 and DKK 10,000 every time they destroy a locking system. And with all the burglaries, it racks up quickly.”

Valuable waste

This kind of disappearance of electronic waste may seem harmless or like a victimless crime. But electronic waste is a real goldmine of resources in the form of precious metals, rare earth elements, and other important raw materials such as nickel, aluminium, and iron. In 2017, the gold content of Danish electronic waste alone was estimated to be valued at around DKK 400 million per year.

In addition, it has previously been documented that large amounts of Danish electronic waste end up at the infamous Agbogbloshie dump in Ghana, contrary to the UN’s Basel Convention. Here, children and young people run around the gigantic heavily polluted area to look for smartphones, mobile phone chargers, and other electronic waste, which they burn to get hold of the precious metals, all while inhaling the toxic fumes that form during incineration.

Improper handling happens in Denmark as well. Last year, it emerged that Danweee Recycling, a company which has now gone bankrupt, stored huge piles of potentially hazardous electronic waste in warehouses and industrial sites for several years. Experts assessed that this was unsafe and that there was a high risk that toxic substances from the waste had seeped into the ground, where they could pollute the groundwater.

Electronic waste is quite literally a goldmine. The gold content of Danish electronic waste alone was in 2017 estimated to be valued at DKK 400 million per year. Illustration: ARC

Finally, it is a problem that Denmark does not meet the EU target of 65 percent of collected electronic waste, as the collection rate was 54.2 percent in 2020. In 2016, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency estimated that around 16,000 tonnes of electronic waste were stolen—corresponding to around 10 percent of electronics placed on the market that year. Assuming that all the stolen electronic waste had been handled correctly, it is likely that Denmark would comply or be significantly closer to achieving the collection goal.

However, a number of industry actors say that the problem of illegal handling of electronic waste has not disappeared in recent years. On the contrary, according to Morten Harboe-Jepsen, CEO of Elretur, the problem of theft of electronic waste from bulky waste schemes and recycling centres has “escalated”.

In Denmark, the responsibility for collecting and handling electronic waste is outsourced to the manufacturers and importers who put it on the market, as a part of extended producer responsibility. In practice, however, it is not the manufacturers themselves who are responsible for the task, but the so-called collective schemes, among which Elretur is the largest one.

Thus, it is also formally Morten Harboe-Jepsen and Elretur who bear part of the responsibility for Denmark not meeting the EU target for collected electronic waste.

“It's really frustrating. We are honest professionals and would love to live up to the 65 percent target. That’s why it never feels good to not meet it,” Morten Harboe-Jepsen says.

Police has trouble understanding the issue

Theft is just one of several explanations for why Denmark is lagging behind the EU target—in addition to incorrect sorting and a general accumulation of electronics in homes. But Morten Harboe-Jepsen points out that the police will have to take the problem more seriously.

“We are not the police and we can’t arrest those people. We also have a hard time talking to the police because they consider the waste to be worthless,” he says and continues:

“We find the police’s efforts to be lacking. They probably just consider this to be worthless waste, even though that’s far from the case. It doesn’t take much, and the police can plan their routes to deter the thieves.”

Henrik Egede, CEO of Applia, industry association for electronics and white goods manufacturers , shares the same experience. He calls it “incredibly sad and outrageous” that such a large part of the Danish electronic waste disappears without a trace outside of the official channels. He believes that the Danish Environmental Protection Agency needs to better supervise producer responsibility for electronics, and that the police must step in:

“The challenge in Denmark is probably that the police so far don’t see the theft of electronics as a real problem. They simply have trouble understanding the issue. They see it as theft of worthless waste, but we and the thieves know that it's a theft of important resources. My sense of justice is provoked by the fact that we have been letting this happen in Denmark for so many years.”

But is it not your responsibility as a manufacturer to make sure that the collection can take place? Shouldn't manufacturers do more to secure the waste against theft? It is not just the task of the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, the police, and the municipalities, is it?

“We have been raising these issues with the authorities for the last eight years, but it has unfortunately been in vain. The manufacturers can’t act as sheriffs and security guards, but we must be able to trust that the normal Danish system in the form of authorities and the police can help us—and we have asked for this countless times.”

The Danish Waste Association, which represents the municipal waste management companies, tells Ingeniøren that while they have not fully determined the extent of the problem, they recognize that there is a problem. However, communications director Niels Toftegaard points out that this is not only an environmental problem, but also a work environment problem:

“It’s not nice for an employee to be stopped by people who want to steal waste.”

Stepping up the efforts can make a difference

While the Danish police are criticized for not taking action, the situation in Norway is quite different. Earlier this year, the Norwegian National Police Directorate issued its national threat assessment, in which theft of electronic waste is included in the section on particularly serious crime threats.

According to the Norwegian police, theft of electronic waste provides “high profits for criminal actors” and entails large losses for the recycling industry. At the same time, electronic waste contains large amounts of heavy metals and toxic industrial chemicals, which are extremely harmful to the environment if not handled properly. According to the police’s assessment, a large amount of the stolen waste is exported illegally to countries in Eastern Europe and Africa.

Ingeniøren has asked the National Police of Denmark whether theft of electronic waste is included in the Danish police’s threat assessment, but they answered that this specific type of crime is not listed separately in their databases. In addition, it is up to the individual police districts and the National Unit for Special Crime (NSK) to focus on the theft of electronic waste.

Ingeniøren presented the criticism to the NSK on Wednesday afternoon, but they were not able to respond before the deadline.

An example of local police efforts can be found in South Zealand, in the municipalities of Slagelse, Sorø, Ringsted, Faxe, Vordingborg, and Næstved, where waste management company AffaldPlus is based.

AffaldPlus’s recycling director Camilla B. Pedersen says that a number of measures have been attempted to better secure the electronic waste against theft—among other things, setting up monitoring and physically placing the electronics containers in different places. In the end, though, it was the police’s additional effort that made the difference.

“Looking back, it was a bigger problem, and we also had problems with gangs stealing electronic waste, but it has been declining in recent years,” she says, adding:

“Most importantly, we work closely with the local police, who actually go out and check the situation when we contact them. It also means that our employees are more likely to follow up on cases of theft because the police responds.”