Any company that makes products containing electronic or hazardous waste currently has the unenviable job of wrestling with the implications of the Waste Electrical and Equipment Directive and the related Reduction of Hazardous Substances Equipment Directive. Something needs to be done urgently. Electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in Europe — each person dumps an average of 14kg, 90% of which is landfilled or incinerated.

When the directives come into UK law in 2005 and 2006 respectively, they will radically change the way that goods are dealt with at the end of their working lives by ensuring that producers are responsible for the waste they create. Not only will there be cost implications, but also problems of recycling and collection logistics.

Action plan

In response to this, companies are using life cycle assessments to look at the way that their products are designed, with a focus on product recyclability and component reduction. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process. Bigger companies can redirect hefty resources into LCAs, but for small firms it is nearly impossible to find the time and money.

The Environment Agency estimates that the 1.2m SMEs contribute 70% of all industrial and commercial waste in the UK, so it’s not a sector that can be ignored. With this in mind, the EU has come up with a novel idea — a web-based resource named eLCA that will enable SMEs to carry out basic LCAs and apply eco-design criteria to their products.

The idea is to create a website containing component and product information that will allow companies to test the environmental score of their products. Keying in different component options will reduce or increase the recyclability of a product, allowing managers to produce a simplified LCA and pick the products that deliver the best performance.

Most of the services will be free. These include training packages on environmental management systems; marketing tools such as eco-labelling and environmental product declaration; and analysis and design methods.

There will also be information on European and specific member state policy, legislation, best practice guidelines and case studies, as well as general life cycle inventory databases; access to on/offline consultancy services; LCA and eco-design simplified software tools; and databases and guidelines for specific sectors (hotels, construction, textiles, electronic and electrical equipment, wood and metal).

The pilot website, which will go live in September, is a joint partnership between organisations such as universities, SME associations, consultancies, and public agencies from Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, the UK and Italy. It will contain data on two sectors — electrical and electronic equipment, and metal products.

One of Bombardier Transportation UK’s products has been used in the eLCA trials. The company’s environmental engineer John Durstan says that the initiative will be invaluable to SMEs. “With the increasing interest from customers about environmental performance, assessment tools are invaluable,” he says.

Getting hands-on data is difficult, time consuming and expensive and Durstan is keen to see the development of the central database. “It would reduce costs for us, our customers and our suppliers,” he adds.

Alan Dukinfield, sales director at Saftronics which makes low voltage start-up units for industry, has also been involved with the trial. After recommendations following an Envirowise DesignTrack visit last year, the company reduced the size of the aluminium heat sinks in its products by half. Intrigued by what further savings could be made, he agreed to the Agency’s request to take part.

The eLCA looked at the company’s SoftStart product in even more detail and Dukinfield is awaiting the results. “Without a resource like eLCA, it is difficult to get to know the environmental score of your products,”he says. “Now we intend to use our score in our marketing.”

Phil White, who is co-ordinating the project at the Environment Agency, says that it’s not just the environmental angle that should encourage businesses to take part. “An LCA can make production cheaper, so it should be seen by companies as a way to save money,” he says.

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