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Imagining a recyclable EU

A Belgian company strives to be the world's first "fair trade" electronics producer.

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Do you know how much of your beloved BlackBerry can be absorbed back into nature? Have you envisioned the end-of-life plan for your precious new iPad? Considered cradle-to-cradle care for your webcam?

High-tech entrepreneurs Marc Aelbrecht, Jean-Pierre D'Haese and Xavier Petre are betting that if you haven’t factored these questions into your purchasing choices yet, you soon will — and you’ll go looking for companies like theirs.

The three Belgians are the brains and consciences behind United Pepper, the first electronics producer in the world to receive certification for “fair trade,” signifying the sustainability of its production process and good working conditions in its manufacturing facilities in Vietnam.

Equally important to the company are its products’ biodegradability and recyclability. United Pepper makes a webcam so green it’s been known to sprout on occasion. The octopus-shaped Lili is filled with a fiber similar to cotton called kapok and sand from the Mekong River, and if it is kept too long in a damp environment, kapok seeds may send forth little tendrils through Lili’s cotton sheath.

It all comes as part of a focus on the complete lifecycle of electronics that the United Pepper trio  believes consumers must heed. “We know these values will become the norm over time,” D’Haese said in an interview at the company’s sparse Brussels office. “We are very convinced — very convinced — that this will be a major evolution in the future.”

If that evolution doesn’t happen by consumer choice, it may be forced by legislation.

The European Union, which the United Nations estimates produces 8.7 million tons of e-waste per year, already has the strictest electronics recycling and disposal regulations in the world enshrined in its directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE ), but it is poorly enforced.

Last month a report prepared by the European Parliament as it seeks to reform the directive showed some EU countries have not even implemented one percent of the existing regulations.

Karl-Heinz Florenz, the German lawmaker who prepared the report, summed up EU-wide compliance as “absolutely appalling.”

While the majority — an estimated 65 percent — of electrical and electronic items sold in the bloc are turned in by consumers to their local collection sites, where it is sorted and prepared for dismantlemement and recycling, things go downhill from there — or, more literally, downstream — as the European Parliament report shows more than half of the collected waste “leaks to improper treatment and illegal exports.

It’s against EU law, for example, to ship off non-working appliances or electronics. Amid scandals of toxic European waste being dumped illegally on third-world countries, European leaders are currently in the process of tightening the WEEE laws even further and pledging better enforcement.

Read: EU learns a lesson about chemical waste

According to a draft text adopted by the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, which will go to a full vote in September, the percentage of e-waste that member states would be required to collect would change from being measured as four kilograms per inhabitant to 85 percent of the amount of waste produced by the country.

The European Commission’s version of the revision, which must be reconciled with the parliament’s, quantifies the collection requirement as 65 percent of the waste produced by weight. In addition, member governments would have to verify that they treat all the e-waste they collect in-country, theoretically heading off some of the illegal shipments to developing nations.

European consumers already have dedicated facilities where they can dispose of their unwanted electronics, and retailers also are required to take back items that are brought to them after they wear out.

But, citing a relatively low level of participation in this scheme — people don’t seem to want to make a trip to the “containerpark” just to get rid of an MP3 player — the commission wants producers to accept more responsibility, which also means more costs.

This would conceivably ensure more compliance, and also make it more feasible to recover any valuable — or hazardous — substances from the electronics and let whatever is possible go back into nature, an example of a “cradle-to-cradle” approach.