The forthcoming Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations become law on 13 August 2004. But what is this piece of innocuous sounding law? In Europe, over 90% of electrical and electronic equipment currently ends up in landfill sites. This represents 6m tonnes of waste each and every year. The ultimate target of the WEEE legislation is to vastly reduce this by recovering up to 80% of electrical and electronic waste.

The legislation, which is designed to improve the environment by making producers responsible for reuse, recycling and recovery of electrical and electronic goods is currently in the last stages of consultation before the regulations are laid and will undoubtedly have a huge impact on organisations involved in environmental management.

By December 2006 at least 250,000 tonnes of WEEE must be collected separately in the UK alone.

The legislation is going to have a very radical and profound impact on how we collect and dispose of all our white and brown goods, as well as any products which contain electrical chips and/or components.

The ramifications for local authorities could be huge in terms of planning and implementing the necessary internal procedures and protocols, as well as educating, informing and working with business and residential rate payers so that they understand how they – or rather their descendants – will benefit, in order to avoid a backlash and possible repeat of the fridge fiasco. Although the exercise is huge, the government will ensure that there will be no financial burden on local authorities, by making sure that it’s the producers that pick up the tab.

Lack of information

Internally, everyone from environmental and legal specialists to the customer-facing waste collection and household waste recycling centre teams needs to understand the legislation and ascertain what the implications are for them both individually and collectively and what external messages are.

There is currently a lack of information out there, with very few of the businesses that will be directly affected fully understanding what is going on, let alone the man in the street who takes rubbish to the waste recycling centre on a Sunday morning.

There have been ongoing discussions between the DTI, DEFRA and the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee as to the extent of the burden on local authorities, as the law is aimed primarily at making the producers and retailers of electrical and electronic goods responsible, but the simple fact is that there will be an impact on local authorities and it cannot be ignored.

Where will the additional funds for dealing with WEEE come from? Finance may be available from a fund provided by a retailer compliance scheme, but it is unclear whether this will cover the full cost to local authorities, and of course, retailers will probably pass any costs onto consumers, so it will be understandable if the public gets upset upon realising he/she has been charged twice – once by the company the item was bought from and again by the organisation that collected it.
And are manufacturers taking the forthcoming legislation seriously enough? Given the magnitude and profound impact this law will have on UK plc, guess how many companies and organisations have responded to the recent DTI consultation process? Fifty percent? Ten percent? The answer is a frightening 0.2%. The knowledge of WEEE within the manufacturing and retail industries is staggering low. So how can waste collectors ensure that the buck isn’t passed to them if the captains of industry haven’t even managed to answer the government’s call to action?

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