Government delays IT recycling directive

Delays to the WEEE directive please HP and other electronics companies, but environmental groups are dismayed
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

The DTI has announced a delay to key elements of an EU IT recycling directive designed to make manufacturers take responsibility for old equipment they've made by at least six months.

The EU Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) directive was due to be incorporated in UK law in August this year but in an open letter released last week, the DTI revealed that most will not be written into the statute books till January 2006.

The DTI said it had encountered "major practical difficulties" in meeting the original legal deadline of August 13, 2005 for implementing the section of the directive which deals with the obligations on producers and retailers to dispose of equipment they supply. "The Government has received many representations from businesses and others saying more time should be taken on the practical implementation in order to get it right. Several other major EU Member states now appear to be planning their practical implementations on a similar, deferred timetable," said the letter's author, Chris Tollady from DTI WEEE implementation.

Friends of the Earth senior waste campaigner Claire Wilton said the group was fully behind the WEEE directive and was obviously disappointed by the delays. "It's a good directive and it brings environmental benefits so it’s a shame that it has been delayed. We are looking for the government to sort out the system so that when it does come in it works efficiently and we don't build up problems for ourselves in recycling electronic goods," she said.

Analyst group Gartner claims vendor recycling costs will ultimately be passed on to end-user organisations. In a recent research note, EU's New Recycling Rules could Drive-Up European PC Prices, the analyst group estimated that legal changes could add $60 (£33) to the price of PCs in Europe by 2005.

"From 2004, budgets should incorporate the costs of equipment disposal. From 2005, budgets should be allocated for a separate recycling fee. This will most likely be included in the purchase price of new PCs," said Gartner.

Industry groups welcomed the government's decision to delay full implementation of the directive. The Recycling Electrical Producers Industry Consortium (REPIC), whose members include Sony, Toshiba and LG Electronics claimed that pushing back WEEE compliance would allow for a fairer version of the law to be enacted in the UK. "There are a number of important issues that still need to be resolved. Premature implementation of the directive would have led to higher costs for consumers and put UK jobs at risk; we now have an opportunity to find solutions that work for everyone," said REPIC chief executive Dr Philip Morton.

HP, which as one of the UK's largest suppliers of PCs and printers is watching the progress of WEEE very carefully, released a statement supporting the decision to delay implementation. "HP believes that delaying the implementation is the right move as there are still a number of details the Government needs to resolve in conjunction with industry to make the directive workable in the UK," said Dr Kirstie McIntyre, WEEE UK programme manager for HP.

But despite agreeing the decision to delay WEEE, REPIC and HP have extremely different views on how the costs associated with recycling should be passed onto consumers. HP welcomed the DTI's decision not to force retailers to include a mandatory visible fee on products. "Visible fees behave like an eco-tax, penalising consumers and creates a negative association with the environment and recycling,” said McIntyre.

Morton however argued that a recycling fee should be highlighted to consumers at the point of purchase, as this will prevent unnecessary price rises to pay for the costs of recycling. "Consumers must be able to see that they are paying a recycling fee for legitimate WEEE-related costs and know that it is ring-fenced entirely for that purpose. If the fee is not visible, there is a danger that it will be marked up through the supply chain so that they pay more than necessary," he said.

WEEE is intended to make manufacturers and consumers of technology more responsible for its disposal but Wilton said that more emphasis needs to be put on environmentally friendly product design.

"The thing they [electronics manufacturers] are successfully managing to weasel out of — because the law is not strong enough on this — is eco-design. The government has set up a committee to look at how companies can build eco-design into their products but at the moment it's voluntary and we would prefer to see regulation."

Eco-design features include creating products that are more energy efficient, use fewer raw materials and are designed so parts can be recycled easily at the end of their useful life.

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