Headaches ahead for e-waste recycling


As the EU prepares to review its electronic waste legislation, industry is calling for a reality check of a European Commission proposal setting binding waste collection targets for manufacturers and making them pay for collecting consumers’ scrap.

The Commission is proposing to change the collection target for Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) from the current 4kg/capita per year (‘one size fits all’) to a variable binding target of 65% of the average weight of equipment placed on the market during the two previous years.

But producers argue that the target is not realistic as only 30% of household WEEE comes back to producers’ recycling systems. The rest is collected for profit by municipalities, recyclers and other actors operating outside the official system or illegally shipped to third countries, said Hewlett Packard’s European waste policy advisor, Mark Dempsey on 14 October.

Achieving the collection target is thus held back by the fact that much WEEE is not in the official system and producers cannot get their hands on it, he told a meeting on the WEEE recast organised by DigitalEurope in Brussels.   

Thorsten Brunzena from the European Commission’s environment department acknowledged that nobody knows where some 50-60% of the WEEE goes, as only 30% is officially recycled and 12% still ends up in landfills.


Dempsey noted that the Commission proposal may lead into a situation in which producers are obliged to buy WEEE to reach their collection target. However, any trade of WEEE leads to an artificial increased cost of recycling without any environmental benefit, he said. 

Such “profiteering” has recently been recorded in the UK, where producers have seen recyclers increase the price of ‘recycling certificates’ sold to producers who need to achieve their recycling targets, Dempsey said.  

“Profiteering happens. Recyclers sit on their WEEE and keep municipalities and producers hostage, leading to an unnecessarily high cost of recycling,” agreed Pascal Leroy, secretary-general of the WEEE Forum, an industry group.     

There might also be a problem with the correlation between the amount of WEEE put on the market and the waste after two years, noted Steve Andrew from the UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills. In other words, linking sales and collection targets might lead to the drawing up of a target beyond the WEEE that is available on the market. 

Extended producer responsibility 

Meanwhile, Thorsten Brunzena stressed the need for ambitious collection targets to “dry out” the unofficial “grey” WEEE markets. The EU executive is proposing that producers finance the costs of separate collection from private households.

“Producers need to do more to get the WEEE back through separate collection, but they need incentives to do so,” he said, suggesting that producers either set up their own systems or strike deals with municipalities and organise awareness-raising campaigns, for example.

Pascal Leroy, secretary-general of the WEEE Forum, said that it is inappropriate to single out a single actor as responsible for recycling targets. “Member states should be in charge as they have legal powers to introduce taxes and force action – something that producers don’t have,” he added.  

Furthermore, Leroy thinks setting up different collection routes for e-waste would be “inconvenient and inefficient” and that municipalities should be in charge of that.

Meanwhile, Stéphane Arditi from the European Environmental Bureau, a green group, believes that making producers more responsible of their WEEE would lead to a “virtuous competitiveness cycle”. In a drive to cut down costs as much as possible, he said producers would start designing products that are easier and cheaper to re-use and recycle. 

Arditi argued that the current Eco-design Directive is too focused on energy efficiency and that a “recyclability measurement” needs to be added to the product design requirements. He also said that producers should only pay the real price of the end-of-life cost of a product, but recognised that measuring the exact cost for different products is still difficult. 

Member states failed to deliver on current directive

The current WEEE directive already has tools to achieve much higher electronic waste recycling, “but member states have failed to use these tools to improve the situation,” argued Jean-Willem Scheijgrond, senior environment director at Philips. 

This is why the EU wants to put the responsibility on producers to see whether they manage to do better, he argued. Meanwhile, business “does not have the tools” to live up to these ambitions, he added.

The Commission’s Brunzena agreed that “a lot of measures are already in the texts and should be better used”. He promised that the Commission would have “a closer eye” on member states to ensure that they draw up registers and report on their WEEE collectors.

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 in December 2008 (EURACTIV 04/12/08). 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.

  • 31 Aug. 2009: MEP Florenz Karl-Heinz (EPP) appointed as European Parliament's rapporteur on the recast.
  • 3-5 Nov. 2009: First discussion on the recast in the Parliament's environment committee.
  • 23 Oct. 2009: Council debate on WEEE recast.
  • 6 April 2010: Scheduled adoption of the Parliament environment committee's report.
  • 18 May 2010: First reading in the Parliament plenary scheduled.


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