The amount of electronic waste that has to be properly collected and processed is set to increase drastically across Europe, after revised rules came into force on Monday.
The idea behind the rule change is to protect the environment from harmful waste, and recover the gold, silver, copper and rare metals that are used in our laptops, mobile devices, TV sets and other gadgets.
The original Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, now a decade old, called for a minimum 4kg of such waste to be recovered for recycling each year, for each person in the EU — that's around one-fifth of the 10 million tons of WEEE generated each year in the union.
The revised directive drastically increases the collection target to 45 percent of all electronic equipment sold from 2016 and, from 2019, either 65 percent of all equipment sold or 85 percent of electronic waste generated.
"In these times of economic turmoil and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities come together," environment commissioner Janez Potočnik said in a statement. "We now need to open new collection channels for electronic waste and improve the effectiveness of existing ones."
Potočnik said he would like to see the EU member states meet the new targets before the formal deadlines. As it stands, states will have to amend their existing WEEE legislation to reflect the new rules and targets by 14 February, 2014.
From the same time, consumers must be able to return very small items of e-waste (no more than 25cm long) to large retail stores for free, unless some other, at least equally effective, recycling scheme is in place.
Manufacturers will be affected by the new rules, as they will be forced to replace certain dangerous materials in their products — use of the heavy metals lead, mercury and cadmium will be discouraged, as will that of hexavalent chromium and the flame retardants polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE).
Apart from the key target deadlines in 2016 and 2019, 2018 will be an important year as it will see the WEEE Directive's scope widen to take in all electrical and electronic equipment, including items such as photovoltaic panels, mercury-containing fluorescent lamps and kit that contains ozone-depleting substances.
One aspect of the recycling process that has been particularly problematic has been that of illegal waste exports. It is quite common for such waste to be sent overseas, disguised as functioning, second-hand equipment — a lot of this WEEE goes to developing countries where the kit is disassembled more cheaply, but also less safely.
The revised directive will force exporters to test whether the 'used equipment' works or not, and provide more documentation to authorities regarding suspicious shipments.