Ministers challenge Commission’s e-waste recycling review

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A European Commission proposal to introduce binding lists of electronic products for recycling would limit EU legislators’ ability to follow market developments in this highly innovative sector, EU environment ministers said yesterday (21 October).

Meeting in Luxembourg, environment ministers debated the proposed recast of directives on waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances (RoHS). Both directives concern electrical and electronic equipment.

Member states oppose harmonised product lists

A majority of national delegations opposed the idea of harmonising the scope of the two directives and would rather have separate texts with different objectives and legal bases.  

They agrue that harmonising the scope of the WEEE Directive would actually limit its scope. Currently based on Article 175 of the EU Treaties, which deals with the environment, the WEEE Directive provides an indicative list of product categories and allows member states to widen the list of products concerned.

“Shifting its scope to RoHS under Article 95, which requires full harmonisation, would make the list binding and require frequent cumbersome comitology procedures to update it, as new products are being invented and brought to the market,” a diplomat explained.

However, EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas disagrees, stressing that harmonising the scope of the directives across the EU would improve their implementation and provide business with increaseed legal certainty. 

Swedish EU Presidency compromise proposal

As a compromise, the Swedish EU Presidency is proposing separate scopes for WEEE and RoHS.

Its proposal puts the WEEE annexes back to their current location and suggests an open scope for RoHS instead. This would allow member states to apply RoHS to more products than currently required. With such an open scope, all electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is included unless it is explicitly excluded.

While the idea of an open scope for RoHS got broad support from member states, some delegations pointed out that the costs of this option for producers were unclear and would need to be subjected to an impact assessment. 

Council hopes for Parliament support 

Given the conflicting vieww, it seems that the institutional debate on recasting the WEEE and RoHS directives is only just beginning. 

“There are no major divergences between the member states,” a diplomat said, stressing that the main disagreement at this point was between the Council and the Commission. “We just hope that the Parliament will now line up with our viewpoint,” the member state representative said. 

European digital technology industry lobby DigitalEurope argues that "shifting the WEEE annexes on scope to RoHS while keeping Article 175 as the sole legal basis for the WEEE Directive does nothing to resolve different interpretations of scope between various member states". 

"In order to ensure a uniform scope across the EU without any divergence between member states, the scope section and definitions of EEE and WEEE should have Article 95 as their legal basis," it stated. 

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. 

WEEE 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 Commission tabled a proposal to review the WEEE and RoHS directives in December 2008 (EURACTIV 04/12/08). 

One of the reasons for the recast was a lack of clarity over both the products covered by the current WEEE Directive and their categorisation, which allows for different interpretations. 

Currently, the scope of both directives is defined via definitions and annexes in the WEEE Directive, which give categories of equipment and examples of products. The RoHS Directive is based on Article 95 (harmonisation measures for the internal market), whereas the WEEE Directive is based on Article 175 (fiscal measures relating to the environment) of the EU Treaties. 

To achieve harmonisation of the scope of the RoHS Directive, the Commission is proposing to move the relevant annexes from the WEEE Directive to the RoHS Directive, while maintaining the current legal basis of each.

According to the EU executive, harmonising the scope under WEEE would require introducing a double legal basis in the WEEE Directive whereas "a similar effect can be reached by referring to the scope in RoHS, already targeting harmonisation of scope".

  • 3-5 Nov. 2009: First discussion on the recast in the Parliament's environment committee.
  • 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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