Monday, January 5, 2009

EU's Proposed WEEE Revisions Signal eWaste Crackdown

Potential toughening of EU eWaste could impose minimum recycling targets on IT manufacturers and force them to crank up take back schemes.

The European Commission today issued proposed revisions to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which would significantly toughen the much criticized legislation by imposing recycling targets on IT and electrical equipment manufacturers and making them financially responsible for household collection of eWaste.

The regulations came into force in the UK in January 2007 after the EU directive was passed in 2003 with the intention of imposing the polluter pays principle on manufacturers by making them financially responsible for the recycling and safe disposal of IT and electrical equipment.

However, the legislation has been widely criticized by green groups as being largely unworkable, with manufacturers accused of failing to adequately publicize eWaste take back schemes, waste management criticized for illegally exporting old computers to scrap yards in the developing world and regulators slammed for failing to enforce the legislation.

The European Commission has now also expressed concern that the legislation is not proving effective and claims that only around a third of electrical waste is being treated in accordance with the law.

The EU estimates that 54 per cent of eWaste produced across the Union is shipped to sub-standard treatment facilities inside or outside the EU, while the remaining 13 per cent goes to landfill. It also claims that the illegal shipping of eWaste for handling in non-EU countries remains widespread.

The proposed strengthening of the directive would give Member States greater powers of inspection and monitoring, and tighten registration and reporting requirements for producers as well as "encouraging" them to be financially responsible – most likely through a more stringent regime of fines for those firms that creach the new rules.

A recycling target has also been proposed that would require manufacturers to collect annually 65 per cent of the average weight of products placed on the market in the two preceding years.

The proposals have attracted criticism from EICTA, the lobby group representing the information and communications technology and consumer electronics industries in the European Union, which claims that producers would not be able to meet the targets.

"The latest proposal defines a set of unrealistic and unreachable targets because it does not take into account the fact that a market for recyclables already exists," said Mark MacGann, Director General of EICTA. "The Commission has seriously underestimated the volume of electrical and electronic waste collected and recycled by non-producer organizations."

According to research published recently by a Dutch group of eWaste recycling firms, current waste collection targets are being exceeded in most EU countries. It claims that while 80 per cent of the electrical and electronic waste has been effectively collected and recycled, the majority of the collected waste has been recycled outside of the official producer-funded WEEE systems.

"There are large flows of electronic waste outside of the producer-funded WEEE system because of simple economic laws of supply and demand," said MacGann. "There is value in recyclable material. When recycled materials prices are competitive, it will be virtually impossible for producers to get hold of enough waste to meet the proposed collection targets."

However, the EU maintains that it is this waste outside the regulated WEEE system that is most likely to end up in landfill sites or being handled in scrap yards in Asia and Africa where poor safety and environmental standards frequently result in damage to workers health and local water supplies.

The proposals were welcomed by green groups such as IT re-use charity Computer Aid International, which has been campaigning for a crackdown on exports of broken IT and electrical equipment to developing economies.

However, Louise Richards, chief executive at Computer Aid International, said that the proposed changes did not go far enough, arguing that more should be done to promote IT re-use over and above recycling.

"The renewed emphasis on recycling targets is a reassuring move, however we question why there is still no specific target in place for re-use alone," she said. "It is our hope that in the future the directive will ensure that 100% of functioning whole appliances are re-used, particularly in the case of PCs and laptops. It's essential that we maximize the energy already expended during the production process, which takes up 75 per cent of a PC’s lifecycle energy before the equipment is even turned on for the first time."

She also argued that the success of any attempt to crack down on illegal waste export would rest on individual member states willingness to properly police the legislation.

"Whilst the proposed changes to the WEEE directive seek to better control equipment leaving the EU, individual governments could still fail to equip their Environment Agencies and equivalents with the appropriate resources to do so effectively," she warned, adding that the charity was currently running a petition on the No 10 website calling for an increase in resources to support the Environment Agency's attempts to police the legislation.

The proposed revisions to the WEEE directive are now open for consultation ahead of an eventual vote on the changes in the European Parliament.


Source: BusinessGreen, Dec. 4, 2008 (