EU plans revision of intricate e-waste laws

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.

Achieving EU-wide compliance with the WEEE directive is an "elusive" task, according to law firm Allen & Overy who is helping US hi-tech companies meet the scheme's requirements. At the moment, it says, the directive is still very much theoretical, saying member states lack the practical experience to make it work smoothly. Implementation at member state level has proved to be far more complex than expected, not least because they were granted the freedom to choose the methods and means of implementation. As a result, the firm says companies are faced with "substantial legal uncertainty".

Despite criticisms, the Commission sees its 'e-waste' legislation as a success story at a time when other countries are considering adopting similar measures. "This EU initiative has been closely followed by public authorities in some third countries with China, a leading producer of electrical and electronic equipment, intending to introduce similar legislation next year," the Commission said. Japan and Korea may also follow, it added in a statement on 30 June.

Appliance manufacturers strongly condemn the way the WEEE directive has been interpreted in some member states (Slovakia, Romania) where producers were told to collect waste from households' doorstep. Pascal Leroy from CECED, the European committee of household appliance manufacturers, insists that it is public authorities who are responsible for the collection, not individual producers. "The spirit of the directive is that producers pay, but not from the doorstep of households," says Leroy.

The Commission estimates that each European citizen currently generates between 17 and 20 kg of waste electric and electronic equipment per year. This consists of virtually anything from light bulbs to computers, TV sets, mobile phones, kettles and refrigerators. Around 6 million tonnes were generated in 1998 in the EU-15, the vast majority of which (90%) ended up in landfill dumps. And the amount are forecast to continue growing at a rate of 3-5% per year, the Commission says.

The EU directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) aims to increase the re-use, recycling and recovery of this kind of waste. It is complemented by a directive on the Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) which are often contained in the equipment and may end up leaking into local water supplies when dumped in landfills.

The two directives came into force in 2003 but have come under fire for being too complicated, too costly and even impossible to implement.

  • 11 August 2006: deadline for submitting information to the Commission on implementation of WEEE/RoHS directive (see Commission document for further detail)
  • By end 2006: All EU countries should ensure that 4kg of waste is to be collected per person each year (2008 for some of the newest member states)
  • June 2008: Commission expected to table new legislative proposals on WEEE/RoHS review

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