Where are WEEE now?

The WEEE Directive has not been without its challenges since being implemented in the UK a year ago. Philip Morton charts its progress to date, and offers some advice for the future

On 1 July 2007, local authorities prepared themselves, as much as possible, for the introduction of the WEEE Directive. At first glance, the process appeared to be fairly simple. Sign up to be a designated collection facility (DCF) and then select a producer compliance scheme (PCS) to collect the waste from each of your sites.

From a LA perspective, the requirements were fairly straightforward. But no one had anticipated the derailment of the WEEE allocation centre, designed to match LAs with PCSs so close to the implementation date. Therefore it became open season on LA DCFs for all the approved PCSs, with some seeking to secure as many LA contracts as possible.

This initial bedding-down period had limited initial effect on LAs, they simply signed up to a PCS and the WEEE began being collected. But, while on the surface things appeared to be working, on the flip side of the coin, problems began mounting. It became apparent that some PCS operators were collecting vastly over and above their market share, counter to the regulations.

These regulations state: "PCSs should aim to collect an amount of WEEE equivalent to their members' needs," which is calculated on the amount of EEE its members placed on the market. Very quickly, this led to some PCSs capturing huge amounts of surplus WEEE with no obvious means of financing the work involved in collecting and treating it.

As anticipated, and in common with the introduction of any major regulatory change, there was an initial slow start-up period, but most UK councils were in the system by the end of December 2007. However, it was only a matter of time before some began to see cause for concern and experience operational and other difficulties that were sure to emanate from PCSs over-committing on WEEE collections

Those PCSs that have over-collected have struggled to cope with the extra WEEE they have contracted for. At the other end of the scale, those PCSs that have as a result been forced to under-collect needed to buy evidence from the over-collecting schemes to ensure that the first compliance WEEE targets were met. The challenge now is to ensure there is a fair WEEE distribution system which evolves with minimal disruption for LAs or their site operators and which allows PCSs to compete on a level playing field.

Council concern comes to light
Councils have begun to voice their concerns. Research recently conducted by compliance scheme ERP - the European Recycling Platform - indicated that 3% of councils will definitely change their existing agreement in the coming months. In addition, 32% of councils said they would review their existing PCS agreement in the coming months, but not necessarily change their partner. And 12% said they were unsure whether to change schemes or not. Put another way, the survey shows almost half are unhappy with their initial choice of PCS.

The initial problems, it seems, stem from over-collection of WEEE by PCS operators. The end of the first compliance period and reconciliation provides irrefutable evidence of over-collection and the enforcement authorities now have the ability to act to ensure that PCSs only collect their market share of WEEE waste.

There is no need for any disruption at DCF site level as any market transition takes place. It remains quite feasible and practical for DCF sites to maintain their current site operators. Over-collection of WEEE is not a single issue, it is the fate of the WEEE once collected that creates problems down the line.

Service agreement options
So what are the options for councils when it comes to WEEE collection? First, they can do nothing and stay with their existing PCS operator if they are happy with them and if the operator can demonstrate it has the capacity to absorb the estimated WEEE that the sites will generate without over-collection beyond its members' needs.

Second, they can agree for another PCS operator to work with the existing operator. In this instance, a company such as REPIC would work with the existing PCS and site operator to ensure that the WEEE is collected according to market share, transported and treated at no extra cost to the council and with no disruption to existing processes. The LA site would see no difference to now.

Third, councils can change their PCS operator if they decide they are unhappy with the current service and sign up with an entirely different PCS altogether. But councils must remember to check that the new PCS has the capacity to take their WEEE. In the event that the decision is taken to re-evaluate a PCS agreement, solutions are already available which can make the transition as seamless as possible.

At the initial discussion stages, councils need to ask a PCS two simple questions - first, what is the market share of your scheme? and second, are you able to contract for our anticipated WEEE volumes, without breaching your requirement to collect WEEE equivalent to your needs under schedule 7 parts 3 and 4 of the WEEE Directive?

It is important that councils maintain their awareness of the issues surrounding WEEE, but do not make any rash decisions. LAs should ensure their PCS operator is reliable, flexible and financially sound and avoid being swayed by incentives that subsequently may not materialise.

Dr Philip Morton is chief executive of REPIC

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