The European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive which aims to boost recycling and cut the amount of scrap going into landfill sites is generating quite a lot of waste of its own, according to critics.
Under the legislation, producers are responsible for financing the collection, treatment, and recovery of waste electrical equipment, and distributors are obliged to take back consumers’ waste equipment free of charge.
But producers, distributors and government agencies are struggling to make the regulations work, according to a wide ranging European Commission review of the legislation.
With countries such as Britain only just implementing the directive, those with experience of managing the system of collection and environmentally friendly disposal of items such as fridges, cookers, computers and mobile phones say that WEEE fails to promote the design of recyclable products.
Companies including Samsung, Acer and Motorola have teamed up with their traditional enemies – environmental pressure groups Friends of the Earth Europe and Greenpeace – to complain about this aspect of the policy.
They say there is no financial incentive for manufacturers to make products more eco-friendly because of the way WEEE has been implemented. When the directive came into force in 2005, the cost of disposing of waste created before the legislation was divided among manufacturers according to their market share.
From then on, individual producers were to take responsibility for their products. However, only 11 of the 27 member states introduced legislation that drew a clear distinction between historic waste and future waste.
The result is that in most countries the system of dividing up the costs of disposing of all waste according to each producer’s market share will continue, providing no incentive to invest in environmental product improvements.
The makers of long-lived goods such as cookers are keen to keep the historic system since they do not want to invest in improvements that will only pay back a decade later.
One of the big bugbears for companies working with WEEE schemes is the different ways the original directive has been interpreted across Europe, which costs a great deal of time and money to deal with.
Companies need to register in each member state the quantity of products they put on the market. But the format varies by country. Some ask to define quantity by categories of equipment, others by volume or weight.
When waste moves between countries, responsibility for recycling changes. Registration bodies need to talk to each other and compare data, but they can’t because procedures are not the same in all countries.
Recycling costs also vary widely by country, says Christof Delatter, coordinator at the Association of Flemish Cities and Municipalities in Brussels. Delatter is working with a group of 80 local authorities in Europe that belong to the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling and sustainable Resource management (ACR+) who are trying to iron out the wrinkles in WEEE.
A digital camera in Switzerland costs €1 to recycle while in Germany, recycling the same camera costs 1 cent. ‘The difference is a factor of 100 and has nothing to do with the efficiency of the operation,’ Delatter says.
Those involved in compliance schemes that manage the process for businesses are finding it tough going getting necessary permits in some countries – not surprising when in Germany there is one central agency that issues permits compared with Spain where operators must apply to each of the country’s 19 regions.
The extra paperwork bumps up the cost. For example, a laptop in Spain costs four times as much to process than in countries with more efficient administration. Changes to WEEE will come, but it will be years before they get through the legal mincing machine.
John Lamb is a Former Editor of Computer Weekly, Informationweek UK AND Information Economics Journal