Are WEEE missing an opportunity?

Recent moves to recast the WEEE Directive are to be welcomed, but do they go far enough? Haley Bowcock outlines six areas that need addressing to deal more effectively with e-waste

The European Parliament recently met to vote on a recast of the WEEE legislation. The proposals approved by MEPs at the meeting were refreshingly ambitious. These included: that member states should collect 85% of the e-waste they produce from 2016; an open product scope for the directive, with all EEE to be included, unless specifically exempted; a recommendation for higher recovery targets, with a 50-75% recycling target (depending on product category) and support for a new 5% reuse goal.

Given the toxic and valuable materials contained within electronics, the issue of e-waste is a serious one. Some 20 billion items of EEE are in use globally. Rapid product replacement cycles means that we can expect all of this equipment to be e-waste in five years, creating a toxic time-bomb of epic proportions. Much of the current e-waste pile is managed badly. Over 50M tonnes of e-waste was generated worldwide in 2009, but only 13% was recycled. Also, there is a worrying flow of e-waste from wealthier countries that have systems to deal with it safely, to poorer countries that do not.

The WEEE Directive was created to address this problem. However, according to the European Commission, only one-third of WEEE collected in the EU is treated according to the directive's requirements. The rest goes either to landfill or to sub-standard treatment inside or outside the EU. This includes illegal export to developing countries where informal recyclers process the waste, risking their health and polluting the environment.

Clearly, changes need to be made - some of which have been reflected in the current proposals for a recast of the directive. At Computer Aid International, we has been lobbying the UK government for number of years to improve e-waste legislation. There are six areas we believe need changing within the directive to enable it to properly fulfil its role of protecting human health and the environment from the impacts of e-waste.

First, more streamlined administration and clarification of the directive's scope to include all WEEE. A common reporting format would be especially desirable, to minimise confusion and add to administrative efficiency. The EU must clarify the directive's scope, to remove any uncertainty that could lead to WEEE unnecessarily going to unsorted landfill. These and similar measures will help remove any differences in interpretation by member states that lead to unnecessary costs, delays and decreased environmental performance.

Second, reduced waste generation in the first place through eco-design using less toxics and improving recoverability. One of the directive's aims is to prevent the generation of e-waste, and has changes in electronics design as a way to achieve this. Producers are expected to be made individually responsible for financing the actual costs of collection and treatment of their own products, to stimulate eco-design.

However a number of member states have not properly transposed the individual producer responsibility provisions of the directive. This means that opportunities to stimulate better design are being missed. We believe that the directive must rectify this, by mandating individual producer responsibility, and providing member states with proper guidance to implement it. Unfortunately, this issue has not really been taken up in current discussions on directive revisions.

Third, more equipment needs to be collected for processing. Collecting more WEEE, and treating it more effectively, is key to improving the environmental performance of the directive and preventing the leakage of e-waste out of the EU. We believe - and are happy that the European Parliament has agreed - that a higher target of atleast 85% of WEEE arising.

Fourth, there needs to be more reuse of whole appliances. We believe that there should be distinct reuse targets, including for whole appliances. The proposed distinct reuse target of 5% is a positive first step, but is not high enough. In our experience, at least three-quarters of computers sent for recovery are fit for reuse.

Also, it makes more environmental sense to reuse, rather than recycle, functional ICT equipment. Reuse organisations should have priority access to WEEE to select usable items to help increase reuse. Also, consumers need to be made aware that all functional equipment should be reused, and that only non-functional items should be sent for recycling.

Fifth, more materials need to be recovered through higher targets and better methods of recovery. Recovery rates should be increased across all WEEE. Also, due to the varying performance of member states' collection and treatment, there needs to be mandatory standards for all collection and treatment methods, including reuse. This will help to ensure the health and safety of all actors in the e-waste chain, and to maximise environmental protection.

Finally, policing and enforcement to end dumping and illegal trade in e-waste needs to be more effective. Better reporting, monitoring, control and international cooperation can curb illegal e-waste shipments. To improve collection rates and prevent leakage to substandard treatment in and beyond the EU, member states should compel all e-waste handlers to report collection and treatment volumes.

This will help to create an accurate picture and monitor e-waste flows, and prevent leakage of WEEE to non-EU countries. Member states, aided by producers, need to ensure that inspection and enforcement bodies are properly resourced to allow them to monitor e-waste and prosecute offenders.

Haley Bowcock is environmental advocacy officer at Computer Aid International

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