Are WEEE nearly there yet?

Joanne Sonenshine from the Consumer Electronics Association looks at recycling legislation one year after implementation.

WEEE Implementation - Lack of Govt and Industry collaboration

The implementation of the WEEE directive thus far has been embroiled in confusion and controversy. Numerous consultations and revisions delayed the roll out and the UK, among other countries, missed every deadline set by the European Commission - not a great start!

This confusion was partly due to the way the directive was developed. The government did not act on industry advice, and as such the regulations have proved difficult to manage and enforce.

For example, the establishment of a National Clearing House as the means of operating the "WEEE system" was favoured by 98 per cent of the respondents to the Government's third consultation.

A National Clearing House would have allocated the WEEE collected at Designated Collection Facilities to Producer Compliance Schemes so that they could arrange for the transportation and treatment of the WEEE in the most cost-effective way.

As the regulations make it the responsibility of producers to pay for the transportation and treatment of WEEE, it was considered reasonable for producers to want control of this process with cost-minimisation in mind so as to keep prices low for the consumer and maintain competitiveness.

In late 2004 the former Department of Trade and Industry abandoned the concept of a National Clearing House. This enabled the waste management industry to physically control the transportation and treatment of WEEE (and the associated cost) and then sell evidence to Producer Compliance Schemes (PCSs) at a cost of their own choosing.

This in effect created a trading system whereby the producers have to buy all the evidence that is generated, regardless of the selling price.

By going against industry advice in this case, the government created a directive that was both difficult to enforce and difficult to monitor and manage.

Had it worked with electronics manufacturers and trade organisations, many of these difficulties could have been avoided ahead of the scheme's implementation.

To deal with these concerns, the Department for Trade and Industry undertook to regulate so that only Producer Compliance Schemes could collect from designated collection facilities. However, it did not follow recommendations in the fourth consultation (late summer 2006) that a five per cent limit be placed on the trading or over-or under-collect WEEE to reduce the opportunities for abuse.

The fact that producers are being asked to pay for the collection of WEEE is a great concern. Environmentally speaking, maximising collection should be the focus of WEEE.

If anything, asking producers to pay for the collection of WEEE (in addition to transport and recycling) may lead to lower collection rates. Essentially this becomes a disincentive to collect, in direct opposition to the aims of the legislation.

Who is responsible for implementation?

Importers, OEMs and manufacturers of electrical equipment are all required to comply with the regulations. Companies that sell or dispose of electrical goods may also have obligations under the directive. The Environment Agency is charged with enforcing the regulations.

Organisations that are obliged to comply with the WEEE directive must join an approved producer compliance scheme. Companies who are not a member of such a scheme are now breaking the law and risking a fine of up to £5000 in a magistrate's court, or an unlimited fine in a Crown court.

The directive makes organisations responsible for financing the cost of treating and recovering the types of products they import, rebrand or manufacture. All new electrical products should be marked with the crossed out wheelie bin symbol, a producer identification mark and a date mark. The wheelie bin mark is intended to help minimise the amount of WEEE disposed of as unsorted household waste.

Best Practice

As the WEEE directive proves, recycling legislation is most effective and easiest to manage when developed through a period of consultation with all stakeholder groups.

Without the proper industry input, the government risks implementing regulation that is inefficient and fails in its primary aim - to encourage and increase recycling of electronic goods.

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