Electric evolution

In the first three months of compliance with the new Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, a respectable 100,000 tonnes of WEEE was separately collected by householders and businesses. It's a promising start, but there have been problems along the way, as Mark Lupton reports

It's now just over 12 months since the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations went on the UK statute books.

The regulations are the latest in a series of producer responsibility directives for waste. They are aimed to divert the growing mountain of waste electrical equipment from landfill disposal. And the producers (including importers and retailers) of such goods - everything from fridges to iPods - would ultimately pay for its collection and recycling.

The first compliance period (July to December 2007) is now over, and there's enough evidence out there for a stock-taking exercise of sorts.

Most agree the system isn't working perfectly - but then again what new regulations don't have teething problems? However, most of the affected parties canvassed by SB suggest the first compliance period can be summed up as: so far, so good.

The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) says it is a case of "steady as she goes", and it's keen to emphasise the successes in setting up the infrastructure to ensure the effective collection, reuse, treatment, recovery and recycling of WEEE. Figures released recently for the first compliance period show 1,556 sites have been registered as Designated Collection Facilities; 75% of the UK's retailers (by volume) have signed up to the Distributor Take Back scheme (DTS); 37 Producer Compliance Schemes have been registered with the Environment Agency; and 248 sites have been registered as Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities.

In the first three months of the first compliance period (the only period for which figures are available) 100,000 tonnes of WEEE was separately collected by householders and businesses.

Such a large number of PCS, many believe is good for competition - something which is often lacking on the continent. And experts say this has vastly reduced the costs of recycling WEEE. (Under the regulations, all producers of WEEE - no matter how large or small - must sign up to a PCS. This then takes on their responsibility for the costs of collection and recycling depending on the size of the producers' market share.)

However, some have argued that such a large number does make it confusing for manufacturers to decide which scheme to go with. And the Environment Agency - the key regulatory body under the new rules - says it has made it harder to track producers who haven't signed up to schemes. In fact, before the legislation went live, a worry was that many producers simply wouldn't sign up either through ignorance or deliberate avoidance. In the end, 4,065 have signed up with a PCS, placing 1.51M tonnes of WEEE on the UK market in 2006.

Adrian Harding, a policy advisor at the Environment Agency, says it has been proactive in chasing what he calls the "free riders" - directly contacting 4,000 last year to establish if they were affected, and pointing them in the direction of PCS if so.

"It's like the tax system," he says. "If people think you are looking, and there's a chance they will have their figures checked, it acts as an incentive to be honest and to take the time to be diligent with their calculations. The priority is to identify the free riders not necessarily to chalk up lots of prosecutions, though there may be cases where that is necessary."

Another problem, says Harding, is the time delay between producers filing figures on their market share to Producer Compliance Schemes at the start of each calendar year, and the publication of figures for the actual amount of WEEE collected for treatment which comes much later.

A PCS will know what a member's market share is from the start but it won't know how big the overall market is until the year is over. That, of course, is dependent on how much WEEE the public disposes of correctly. This remains the big known unknown - to use the Rumsfeldism - for all those concerned. Figures for the first six months of WEEE operation were due to be published as SB went to press.

Under the current rules, each PCS will have to submit its certificates of compliance - to demonstrate that it has met the obligations of its member by 1 June, 2008. "So, in other words," says Harding. "It will say we needed to collect 1,000 tonnes of TVs - here is our evidence of that." It's a crucial date he argues.

"Before that, it is all speculative as to whether or not you have good, bad or non compliant schemes," he argues. "In our view, that's the time we will be able to assess the schemes. So the jury is still out in some respects. The clue is in the name: these are producer compliance schemes, their focus should be on ensuring compliance with these regulations on behalf of their members. We will know on June 1 whether they have done that or not."

That date should supply all those affected with WEEE with some crucial pieces of information: such as whether shortfalls are a problem with a particular category of WEEE, and whether shortfalls are being caused by flaws in the system or are of the PCS's own making. And it will allow producers to make comparisons between PCS.

Another unexpected issue has arisen in part from the body set up, ironically, to smooth out potential problems. Even the most optimistic were not willing to predict that all Producer Compliance Schemes would collect exactly the right amounts of the different types of WEEE they were meant to. Some structure was therefore needed to allow PCSs to make up for any shortfalls and to sell any surpluses. This was the function of the Settlement Centre - set up by BERR.

Problems have arisen, however, because PCS have different views on its purpose. Some say it should only exist to allow trading at the margins. Others say there's nothing in the rules to stop them accumulating huge surpluses and then selling them on at a profit.

This has led to a standoff between Electrolink and the biggest PCS, Repic. The former has actively accumulated more evidence than it requires; the former not enough. And Repic isn't happy about the price Electrolink wants for its excess share of the evidence. Negotiations were ongoing throughout February, and there were hints of a satisfactory conclusion as SB went to press.

Some argue the regulations need to be looked at again to ensure it is more explicit about whether deliberate over collection is allowed or not. And the government also needs to ensure, say critics, that the role of the settlement centre is made clearer.

Until that happens, the Electrolink-Repic standoff is creating significant uncertainty, which the fledgling system just doesn't need. Because Electrolink is not able to sell its excess evidence, there are reports of contractors not being paid - such as those who treat or move the waste - and also some suggestions that local authorities have not been paid their fees as a result.

Cllr Paul Bettison, chairman of the Local Government Association's Environment Board, says many local councils signed up with Electrolink because they thought it was the best deal and because they were promised they would be reimbursed for their existing contractor costs for collecting WEEE. "They signed up a relatively large number of councils even though they had a relatively small number of producers on their books," he says. "Now, because Repic don't want to pay the high price, Electrolink is asking for the compliance notes that means the latter can't pay local councils. You have to ask why bother with the middle men (PCSs) in that case."

For local councils, one of the biggest concerns prior to the introduction of the regulations was that they wouldn't get enough money from the producers who were meant to be responsible for the costs of disposal and recycling.

Specifically, Bettison slammed the amount being offered by retailers to upgrade existing recycling facilities, which it claimed worked out at just £6,500 per site. Accusing retailers of holding the whole process to ransom, he said it was "totally unacceptable" that council tax payers were being expected to pay for new schemes which businesses should be paying for. One year on, his language is notably more conciliatory despite his concerns about the system of Producer Compliance Schemes.

"Councils and the LGA have always supported the notion of producer responsibility, although from time to time we have expressed concerns about the reality of such schemes. We do believe responsibility should mean financial responsibility not just moral responsibility, and we are pleased that councils can now sign up to have the relevant waste taken away at the producers' cost."

Duncan Simpson of Valpak Retail WEEE, which operates the DTS says: "At the outset, there was a worry that no local authorities would sign up to it. In the end, all of them did and the vast majority have registered every single site for virtually every category of WEEE. That means you've got a network of sites in place now which members of the public can now be directed to when they take a piece of used electrical equipment back to a retailer." (The alternative, opted for by a minority of retailers but including the Dixons Group, was to offer in-store take-back for customers.)

From the retailers' corner, there's an insistence that they have done more than was expected of them.

Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium says: "In the end, the Distributor Take Back scheme was able to give local authorities £10M, which worked out at £9,000 per site to upgrade their facilities. We think this was more than adequate. Obviously, that's a burden on retailers at a time when margins are massively under pressure from other rising costs. But retailers accept it's important to encourage environmentally responsible and safe disposal of electrical goods at their end of life."

Some have suggested that, while efforts to put the collection and treatment infrastructure in place have been good, work on promoting the new regulations to the public has been less rigorous. The government itself held back on major publicity campaigns during the first compliance period to ensure the infrastructure was in place first.

Louise Marshall, corporate risk manager at office equipment manufacturer Brother, says: "There is still a lack of awareness about how machines can be recycled at the end of their useful life amongst the public. Some larger retailers have produced consumer-targeted leaflets and materials to help educate customers, but there is still a lack of clarity and little is being done by smaller retailers."

Brother says it estimated the WEEE regulations would cost it 1% of turnover. But, with the first compliance period now over, it now says this may have been over-cautious, "due to current low volumes of returned goods".

"As public awareness grows, these costs are likely to become more realistic," adds Marshall.

As with most new regulations minor tinkering around the edges has also been required. Much was tackled in amendments in December, including the insertion of a right for final holders of WEEE - repairers for example - to return items to the system free of charge. Reporting was also changed from tonnes to kilograms. But few would have expected no changes to be required.

As Harding concludes: "You always expect to have teething problems with regulatory regimes. The regulations are tweaked, the guidance improved, and the people in the system become more familiar with their jobs and the deadlines, and what figures go where. And the whole thing naturally improves through evolution. It's a case of so far so good from our point of view. There are a couple of problems which need to be tackled but they are not beyond a solution."

Mark Lupton is a freelance journalist

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