Why you should care about the WEEE recycling law

The EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment directive is finally being enforced, but what will it mean for UK firms?
Written by Andrew Donoghue, Contributor

The tech industry has historically been very good at the purchasing end of the supply chain. Add-ons, upgrades, new releases, enhanced designs; IT manufacturers are brilliant at encouraging customers to buy the next iteration of their product even if the existing one still works.

But the by-product of this obsession with upgrading is a high turnover of discarded tech. The large percentage of this equipment that is still serviceable can be donated to charities, such as the UK's Computer Aid, that recondition machines for use by the developing world or other worthy destinations. But until recently, the majority of defunct and junked tech ended up in landfill, or was shipped illegally to the third world to be broken down by ill-equipped labourers in hazardous conditions.

The EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive is one part of a raft of green legislation introduced to tackle the growing issue of high-tech trash, and is finally being enforced under UK law.

How will WEEE work?
The legislation is designed to make technology manufacturers financially responsible for the recycling or disposal of their equipment at the end of its life. This will probably translate into a price increase — some have coined the term "green tax" — on electronic goods, as producers attempt to recoup the costs of recovering their old technology.

What will businesses have to pay?
IT managers probably won't see much direct impact as a result of WEEE. The DTI claims suppliers will be responsible for collecting old equipment they replace when delivering new products. And products that are being thrown away but not replaced will fall under existing waste regulations included in the Environment Act. Many large companies will already take advantage of existing take-back schemes from the likes of Dell and HP.

So how much is it going to cost me as a consumer?
According to the DTI, tech manufacturers will have to pay for the cost of recycling waste, while retailers will have to cover the cost of collection from offices and households. These costs will probably be passed on to consumers, and analyst firm Gartner estimates that WEEE could add about £30 to the price of a new PC in Europe. Given the way commoditisation is driving down the cost of computers, users may not see a difference. However, the IT industry may simply use WEEE as an opportunity to hike up prices as they did in Ireland (see below)

Wasn't this law supposed to come into force several years ago?
The WEEE directive was originally meant to become law in the UK in August 2005, but in March that year the DTI announced it would be delayed until January 2006. Then in August 2005, the DTI announced that the legislation would be delayed until at least June 2006. Although the law is now being enforced in part from 2 January, 2007, suppliers won't have to comply with all elements of the legislation until July — over two years after the directive was meant to be implemented.

Europe can't be too happy about that...
The European Commission actually got to the point of threatening legal action against Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Poland and the UK for stalling over WEEE. Fines were also threatened but it seems the UK at least got its act together before the situation turned financially embarrassing. The Commission claimed at the time that it would rather get the legislation passed than take countries to court.

So how are other countries doing?
Most of the rest of Europe has been much more proactive when it comes to implementing WEEE. Sadly, as with many environmental and recycling issues, the UK is lagging behind. The law was enacted in Ireland in 2005;  however, the introduction of WEEE was quickly followed by "disproportionate" price increases, according to Ireland's opposition party.

What happens next?
The DTI has launched a series of free seminars through January and February to help producers and retailers get up to speed on their responsibilities under WEEE. The talks should attract big audiences as there is still a lot of confusion about how WEEE will affect the various parties in the supply and sales chain. Producers have until 15 March to join an approved compliance scheme, but there are sure to be some problems as WEEE begins to bite later this year. A recent survey by law firm Eversheds found that more than half of UK manufacturers and suppliers are not up to speed with their responsibilities under WEEE.

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