Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

The directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) aims to increase the re-use, recycling and recovery of waste from a variety of consumer products ranging from light bulbs to PCs, mobile phones, medical devices and sports equipment. The WEEE directive is complemented by a directive on the Restriction of the use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) in electrical and electronic equipment. The two directives came into force in 2003 but have come under fire for being too complicated, too costly and even for being impossible to implement.

Electrical and electronic equipment constitute one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU. It is estimated that the rate of growth of this type of waste is three times that of the rate of growth of municipal waste. Furthermore, this kind of equipment contains quite a substantial amount of toxic products. There is a danger of these toxic chemicals leaking into the soil when PCs and other electronic equipment are dumped into landfills.

The WEEE and RoHS Directives aim to limit the amount of waste going to final disposal and provide an incentive for producers to design more environmentally-friendly electrical and electronic equipment through producer responsibility. 

They were due to be transposed into national law by August 2004 but practical difficulties led some countries, including the UK, to postpone implementation into national law. One year after adoption, EU ministers extended deadlines for implementation for EU-10 countries by two years.

The main points of the current legislation are: 

  • Collection and recovery of waste equipment: Member states have until 2005 to introduce take-back systems and collection facilities for all electrical and electronic equipment. Electrical and electronic equipment must not end up in unsorted municipal waste but must be collected separately. A binding collection rate of 4 kg per inhabitant a year by the end of 2006 at the latest must be achieved; 
  • Producer responsibility: Producers will bear the costs involved in collection, recovery and disposal - at least from the collection facilities - for the waste arising from their new products. They will have the choice of either managing the waste on an individual basis or participating in collective schemes; 
  • Historical waste (put on the market before the directive comes into force): this waste will be treated through collective financing; producers can recover the costs through a "visible fee" sales tax on new products for eight years (ten years for larger products); 
  • Labelling of equipment  : Producers of electrical and electronic equipment are required to label their products clearly to allow easier identification and dating and to inform consumers that all waste equipment is to be collected separately. 
  • Product design: The WEEE directive provides that dismantling and recovery should be facilitated at the production stage. Technical design features that prevent equipment from being reused are to be avoided. 
  • Limit values for hazardous substances: Four heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury and hexavalent chromium) and the brominated flame retardants PBB and PBDE were due to be banned from 1 July 2006. But this measure was deemed inapplicable by the Commission who took a decision to tolerate some minimum concentration values in August 2005 (0.1% by weight for mercury, hexavalent chromium, PBB and PBDE and 0.01% by weight for cadmium).

Recast of WEEE and RoHS

In December 2008, the European Commission tabled proposals to recast the WEEE and RoHS directives (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. 

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 (EURACTIV 30/01/0916/10/09).

One of the reasons for the proposed recast is also the lack of clarity over both the products covered by the current WEEE Directive and their categorisation, which allows for different interpretations (EURACTIV 23/10/09).

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. 

To see stakeholders' reactions to the proposed recast, see the 'Positions' sections of EURACTIV 04/12/0830/01/0916/10/09 and 23/10/09.

The tight deadline for implementation of WEEE alarmed business organisations, leading to delays in transposition in some countries. Commenting on a UK government decision to postpone the implementation of WEEE, the Confederation of British Industry  (CBI) said: "This sorry saga is, regrettably, yet another example of hurried, last minute implementation of major European environmental directives." 

"The time gained must now be used to get proper clarity in the regulations, and to ensure that all parties - manufacturers, retailers, the Environment Agency and local authorities - have sufficient notice of them to prepare," said John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director-General. "Business and the environment deserve better," he added.

Much, although not all, of the European electrical industry has been highly critical of the directive. Criticisms have included unrealistic recycling targets, an unfair retroactive element, punitive financial costs due to the take-back schemes and investments in technology, and the questionable need to include a heavy metal ban in a waste directive. 

CECED, which represents the European industry of household appliances, urges prudent implementation of 'electro-scrap' rules. It underlines the huge responsibility that the legislation imposes on producers. The domestic appliance industry will be the most affected by the new rules as it represents about half of all electrical and electronic equipment in use today and set to be the waste of tomorrow. The added costs will result in higher prices for consumers. However, manufacturers unanimously recognise that the final package has struck a balance between promoting better environmental protection and putting in place workable mechanisms for dealing with the waste problem. 

The US electronics industry has also voiced criticisms of the WEEE Directive. They question whether any valid environmental analysis underpins the directive and argue that the replacement of heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium (now part of RoHS) could force manufacturers to adopt substitutes that have a worse environmental impact. In addition, the American Electronics Association's (AEA) claims that it is unfair on US companies, as well as against WTO rules, and could therefore lead to further US-EU trade disputes. 

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) expressed its satisfaction that producers now can be held responsible on an individual basis. EEB's Secretary General John Hontelez said: "Making companies consider the end of life implications of the design of their products at the time they place the products on the market in the future is a strong driver for eco-design in electrical and electronic equipment. Now we call on the member states to take full advantage of this opportunity to work towards the long-term goal of prevention of waste from EEE." EEB was disappointed with the reduction of the collection targets. 

  • February 2003: Directives enter into force.
  • February 2004: EU-10 granted an extra one to two years for implementation (EURACTIV, 13/02/04).
  • August 2004: Deadline for EU-15 countries to implement directives.
  • August 2005: Collection systems must be operational, treatment and financing systems in place and obligations enter into force.
  • 1 July 2006: Ban on  hazardous substances starts to apply, Commission starts review  of WEEE/RoHS directives (EURACTIV 17/07/06).   
  • August 2006: Deadline for limit values on hazardous substances.
  • 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 newer member states).
  • 3 Dec. 2008: Commission tabled proposals to recast the WEEE and RoHS directives (EURACTIV 04/12/08).
  • 23 Oct. 2009: Council debate on WEEE recast. 
  • 22 June 2010: Adoption of the Parliament environment committee's report.
  • 3 Feb. 2011: First reading in the Parliament plenary.
  • 14 March 2011: Council political agreement on WEEE recast.
  • 30 Nov. 2011: Second reading in the Parliament plenary scheduled.

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