Commission, industry clash over electronic waste collection

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European Commission and business representatives squabbled over whether to make manufacturers pay for collecting consumers’ waste yesterday (29 January), during a debate on the proposed review of an EU directive on recycling waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). 

In one of the first public debates on the Commission’s proposal to recast the WEEE Directive, business and Commission representatives clashed over the way to revise rules for old electronic products.

In the wake of the EU executive’s proposal, published in December, electronic equipment manufacturers have already expressed concern that the review will result in added costs for business without no real trade-offs. 

Meanwhile, the Commission refers to the review as “an opportunity for EU companies to innovate and have access to valuable raw materials” and underlines its intention to cut red tape and reduce related costs for industry. 

Regarding WEEE collection targets and extended producer responsibility, the recast represents a "business opportunity," said the European Commission's desk officer in charge of the revision, Orsolya Csorba. She explained that the impact assessment launched by the proposed revision shows that annual collection costs amount to €1 billion, which could be offset by €2.6 billion of annual income, because the amount of recovered material will increase. In addition, recycling creates between five and seven times more jobs than incineration," she added. A total of €60 million will be saved annually in reduced red tape, she claimed. 

However, Viktor Sundberg, environmental affairs manager at Electrolux, referred to the WEEE revision as "one of the most challenging directives for our sector," adding that while the text was not as long as the one for the EU's chemical legislation REACH, it was just as "far-reaching", as it touches upon the fundamental principle of "ownership of waste".

Sundberg shared the Commission's concern about leakage of WEEE, its illegal trade and shipping to third countries, but did not agree with how the Commission is proposing to fix the problem. "Waste has a value," he underlined, "but making producers responsible for the collection of WEEE does not automatically mean they will have access to more WEEE". 

"When a client buys a product, he owns the WEEE and cannot be forced to give it back to the producer," Sundberg said. Meanwhile, the local municipalities collect it and sell the valuable WEEE, such as washing machines, directly to recyclers, he explained. They only return items like fridges to producers, which are not such lucrative waste, he lamented. He also thinks that having a collection target (65% proposed by the Commission) is wrong. "The aim should be 100% and municipalities should give it all to producers."

As only some 30% of the WEEE is reported, collected and treated, while over 50% of it goes to sub-standard treatment via unreported means, Sundberg further argued that the directive should address all WEEE actors and not just producers.

Klaus Koegler, head of unit at the Commission's environment directorate-general, strongly criticised Sundberg's "unprofessional" way of bringing his arguments forward and refusing even to think about being able to reach the collection target of 65%. He also said that industry focuses too much on the estimated annual extra cost of €1 billion, while the value of increased recovery would, according to estimates, amount to €2.6 billion.

Luigi Meli,  director general of the European domestic equipment manufacturers lobby (CECED), told EURACTIV that the €2.6 billion was a purely "hypothetical" figure as no limits were being proposed on other actors and more collection would not necessarily lead to valuable WEEE being returned to producers. Unless politicians are willing to "cut this conflict of interest" regarding municipalities selling valuable WEEE, new burdens cannot be imposed on producers without any trade off, he said.

Nathalie Cliquot, policy officer for waste and products at the European Environmental Bureau, agreed with Sundberg that the directive should address all WEEE actors, not just manufacturers, to avoid uncontrolled leakage of WEEE from official collection systems and illegal export to third countries.

The European Commission estimates that each European currently generates 17-20 kg of waste electric and electronic equipment per year. This includes anything from light bulbs to computers, TV sets, mobile phones, kettles and refrigerators. 

The 2003 EU Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) aims to increase the re-use, recycling and recovery of such waste, but has come under fire for being too complicated, costly and even impossible to implement, leaving room for further improvement and simplification.

The Commission tabled a proposal to review the WEEE Directive on 3 December 2008. Among the changes suggested, the EU executive is asking member states to encourage manufacturers to finance differentiated waste collection and de facto transfer the costs to consumers. In line with the 'polluter pays' principle set out in the EU Treaties, the Commission is keen to shift responsibility from taxpayers to consumers.

  • 2009: The Parliament's environment committee will prepare its response to the dossier, but rapporteur Karl-Heinz Florenz (EPP-ED, DE) has not yet set a clear timeframe for its preparation.
  • Later: The file is not a top priority for the Czech Presidency. Therefore, drafting a common Council position may well not take place before the autumn, or even 2010.

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