Dangerous waste creates disposal dilemma

Disposing of old and useless equipment has always been a problem. We have a suggestion that may speed European law

Civilisation is defined by many things: science, art, politics, trade — and sewerage. From the mysterious Bronze Age cities of the Indus Valley to the high technologists of Victorian Britain, the creation of sophisticated waste-disposal systems has marked civilisations not afraid to confront the less salubrious aspects of humanity.

We too live in a successful, affluent society, furthermore one with a high level of environmental awareness. So why is the DTI behaving so badly over implementation of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive? It's all very well feeling the warm tingle of national pride over the Olympic Games, but we should be able to demonstrate the same leadership in matters of greater significance. Lagging behind Latvia doesn't make the heart swell.

It can't be that the companies involved aren't ready. All the producers are multinational and operate in markets such as Germany and Spain where the directive is being properly implemented. Talk to Dell, IBM and HP, and you'll find that the directive is being taken just as seriously as any other compliance regulation.

And it can't be that the problem isn't pressing: we are heading into the next great buying cycle as the legacy equipment of Y2K ends its useful life. Furthermore, we are facing a particularly important one-off event, as CRTs — laced with lead and poisonous phosphors — are yielding their kingdom to the LCD.

By failing to present a coherent plan so late in the day, the DTI is failing everybody. The producers have implemented their side of things, and are entitled to their concerns about unworkable co-ordination. The end users — that's us — need to know why regulations that are palpably in our own interests are not being enacted. And Europe needs to know why we're breaking the law: doubly disgraceful in the year of the UK presidency of the EU.

It is tempting to wonder whether the delays are linked to the exceptional demand. If the legal requirement kicks in after the peak in CRT replacement, that's a lot of money saved that will never need to be spent. Yet it is wise never to assign to conspiracy that which can be explained by incompetence, and the DTI has always been better at the latter than the former.

If we do not see a swift resolution to this matter, then may we suggest a further class of obsolete equipment be added to the recycling tariff — the calcified clodhoppers warming the chairs in Whitehall. If it is a mark of true civilisation that it is prepared to deal with dangerous waste, then in this matter we are prepared to be very civilised indeed.