Broad disparities in the way EU directives on electric and electronic waste are interpreted at national level have prompted the Commission to start reviewing the laws even before they started to apply on 1 July.
New EU rules on hazardous substances contained in waste electric and electronic equipment have started to apply on 1 July 2006 across most of the EU-15. They are part of a broader policy which requires producers to finance the costs arising from the collection, treatment and recovery of anything from refrigerators to mobile phones, toasters and TV sets.
The rules introduces bans on six hazardous substances that up until now were widely used by manufacturers. Four heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium) as well as two groups of brominated flame retardants (polybrominated biphenyls -PBB- and polybrominated diphenyl ethers -PBDE-) are now prohibited as they are considered to pose a direct health risk to workers or because they can be released into the environment when incinerated or disposed of in landfill dumps.
But compliance with the new rules is posing headaches for businesses as they try to conform to the new substances bans:
- Exemptions were granted to products in areas where their use is considered essential or where they cannot be easily replaced (military, aerospace, medical). But they also forced some companies to keep dual supply chains to provide both exempt and non-exempt industries.
- Hazard-free parts such as lead-free circuit boards have not yet made their way to the mainstream market, causing supply disruptions for non-exempt industries
- Penalties for non-compliance range from fines (up to €1.2 million euros in Spain, and €50,000 in Germany) to imprisonment (in eight countries, including the Netherlands and Ireland). Trade licences can be revoked (Czech Republic, Poland, Spain), products recalled (Germany, Ireland) or sales prohibited (Ireland, Finland, Poland).
In addition, member states’ interpretation of the law regarding collection and treatment of e-waste has been uneven. A report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre identified key trends in the implementation of the WEEE directive.
It says EU countries which already had WEEE management schemes (Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden) had in general little adjustments to make. But the situation is very different for countries which do not have a WEEE culture, the report says. Many among the large member states were late in transposing the directive and lacked the know-how to convert the law into practice. And some – the UK and Malta – are still to transpose the directive into national law.
Most frequent among the problems encountered was putting a take back service in place and deciding how to organise collection. The “tried and tested” system is nation-wide collective schemes such as in the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. The other is the “clearing house model” which introduces competition between different schemes to drive costs down. However, these have still to pass a “real life” test.
Faced with growing complaints from industry, the European Commission has already started work to review the legislation. The review will look at future targets for WEEE collection and whether certain aspects of the directive should be revised to improve the way it works. The RoHS directive is also being reviewed to see whether medical equipment (category 8) and monitoring and control instruments (category 9) are to be exempted from substances bans or not. On 22 June, just days before it entered into force, a further six RoHS exemptions were decided through a so-called ‘comitology’ procedure.