WEEE Directive Being Recast (2012)- What for the UK?

The WEEE directive was ratified into law by the European Union in 2003. Some three years later, the UK adopted the legislation after agreement in Parliament and signing into law by the Crown.

The WEEE directive was ratified into law by the European Union in 2003. Some three years later, the UK adopted the legislation after agreement in Parliament and signing into law by the Crown. The Directive came into force in 2007, imposing new guidelines upon the recovery and treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment. In essence, the then new legislation aimed at developing a networked treatment system that imposed levies upon manufacturers or producers of equipment so as to fund the recovery and recycling of the resultant post consumer waste at the end of it's useful life. Note that this incorporates the word "consumer", which in this instance is very apt, given that it was aimed at waste generated by the General Public.

At the time, an existing and thriving industry existed, aimed solely at post Commercial waste electronic equipment derived solely from IT equipment- ie office based computer hardware. The WEEE directive, by design was not aimed squarely at this sector, although it did in effect place a burden upon the business sector in terms of "duty of care" with regards to it's end-of-life disposal. The directive was clear in that it was the Business' responsibility to fund the disposal part of the equipment's life-cycle. Since the inception of the WEEE directive and it's adoption by the UK in 2007, more emphasis has been placed upon the responsible treatment/ recovery of this waste and the business sector is now astutely aware of the need to source and employ a proficient partner as part of the disposal process. This is never more so apparent than where a business holds or intents to hold ISO (international Standards Organisation) certification simply because an added "Duty" is placed upon the certified company to conduct itself in a diligent manner.

However, diligence aside, the WEEE directive is at present undergoing a complete overhaul, with it's final draft having been ratified (Jan 2012) by an overwhelming majority in the EU parliament (95% of member representatives voted for the change). Impending changes are seen by many as a step in the right direction for the WEEE directive and waste management as a whole. However, for some, the incumbent changes bring with them significant issues.

The need to bring about changes to the WEEE directive were highlighted in 2009, at a time when EU member states were aiming for a 4 kgs per capita recycling rate (4 kgs per person per member state per annum). Germany highlighted significiant issues associated with the recycling system, in that the WEEE directive placed significant emphasis upon the re-use of WEEE in it's current form (once refurbished, it could be re-sold as EEE and distributed outside of the EU). It was becoming more and more apparent that member states could not control the export of WEEE under the guise of EEE and estimates started to point towards as much as 80% of the waste being exported without prior treatment (ie recycling, repair or refurbishment). (Note that MEPs have recently confirmed this during debate in Strasborg, where it was shown that 53 million tonnes of WEEE were generated in 2009 but only 18% collected for recycling.)

Highlighted by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and many other international organisations as a catastrophe, it soon became apparent that much of the waste was being treated (recycled) in developing countries in appauling conditions with absolutely no consideration towards the health and well-being of those carrying out the work. In effect children were simply scavanging through the waste, burning carcenogenic plastics and PCB bearing circuit boards in the vein attempt to recover precious materials/ metals from the wastes.

However, by 2010, the German Environment Agency gave stark warnings that short comings associated with the increasing cross continent trade in WEEE were in effect financially damaging due to the volumes of Gold and silver being shipped for treatment elsewhere. Many operators working towards the collecting and moving of large volumes of waste were cutting both corners and damaging their own economy in an attempt maintain their own turnover with least possible capital investment. As a result, container loads of untested, untreated and hazardous WEEE were being sold for export at remarkably low prices. In return, Operators inside the EU needed little prior capital investment to carry out the works, could offer their services for next to nothing and could sell the waste on to exporters who then employed cheap labour in the disassembly and recovery process. However, the countries receiving the wastes, were in effect being handed 24 kilos of gold and 250 kilos of silver for every 1 million mobile phones.

The flip side to all this is the re-use market, which to some extent has it's merits and should not be ignored. It provides some aid to developing countries but has to a certain extent been seen through rose tinted spectacles by many. Exporting used computers, mobile phones and the associated electronics required to maintain and use them has it's risks, not least of which has until a few years ago been the theft of personal data. There are the added risks associated with the recycling of these goods when they themselves become waste and this simply can't be ignored. Given the volumes being shipped to Developing countries, with all good faith, there are currently only 2 recycling initiatives in place for the whole of Africa, and both of these are woefully inadequate, lacking any signficant infrastructure.

However, the recast WEEE directive makes clear that the onus will now be on the exporter to prove that the waste is not waste but re-usable equipment. This clampdown on what has become known as "illegal export" (and was clarified as such by the EU parliament as such) will give border agencies far more power in the fight against this trade.

Whether the UK decides to implement the recast WEEE directive in the form designed by the EU, or decides to modify it to suit the UK's current waste streams is pretty much anyone's guess, but there's a possibility that the current permitting (waste management licensing) system will see some reform, with the existing "Exemption" which permits the repair and refurbishment of WEEE being redrafted so that it falls outside of the WEEE system all together. This in itself would bring the UK's permitting system in line with the recast WEEE directive. However, without increased reprocessing rates, it will result in the British Isles seeing a drop in per capita recycling rates every year as the waste electronics put back into use won't count towards the final figures. On the flip side, only positive results will come from this reform as it will ultimately result in a tightening up of this difficult to manage waste stream, with waste ending up where it should.

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