Commission tables electronic waste recycling review

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Electronic equipment manufacturers fear that a proposed review of an EU directive on recycling waste electrical and electronic equipment will result in producers having to pay for household collection.

The European Commission tabled proposals to recast the WEEE and RoHS directives on 3 December.

According to the EU executive, the review aims to tackle the technical, legal and administrative difficulties related to the current directives and cut down related unintended costs and burden on market actors and administrations. 

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas also referred to the review as “an opportunity for EU companies to innovate and have access to valuable raw materials” as the bloc seeks to become a resource-efficient economy and encourage sustainable consumption and production.  

Changes proposed for the two directives include:

  • Change in the collection target from the current 4kg/capita per year (‘one size fits all’) to a variable binding target that takes into account the economies of individual member states (65% of the average weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the two previous years);
  • including the re-use of whole appliances in the recycling and re-use target in order to encourage re-use;
  • increasing the re-use and recycling target by 5%; 
  • listing priority substances posing particular environmental concerns when used in electrical and electronic equipment, to be assessed in line with the EU’s REACH regulation on chemicals with a view to a possible ban in the future;
  • harmonised EU-level registration and reporting obligations for producers; 
  • minimum inspection requirements for member states to strengthen the enforcement of the directive and monitor requirements for shipping WEEE.

The EU executive is also asking member states to encourage producers to finance the costs of separate collection from private households and shift the costs of WEEE collection from taxpayers to consumers of electrical and electronic equipment (through producers) to bring financing in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle set out in the EU Treaties.

EICTA, the voice of EU information and communications technology and consumer electronics industries, said it was concerned by the proposed revision of the WEEE Directive as it sets "unrealistic and unachievable collection targets" for recycling. 

EICTA argues that it puts a disproportionate financial burden on electrical and electronic equipment producers by encouraging producers to be made financially responsible for household collection. Although the proposal remains unclear on this, stating that producers should be encouraged to finance collection costs, EICTA believes the revision would "massively increase the costs of compliance with no environmental benefit".

The success of meeting collection targets depends on factors outside the control of producers, ranging from availability of collection points to the volume of waste being generated by the end user, EICTA argues. Instead, it suggests that municipalities should retain primary responsibility for collection, and says the directive should better define the responsibilities of all stakeholders involved in the collection of waste. All recycled waste should be reported to the central waste authorities in each country, EICTA adds.

European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED) Secretary General Luigi Meli expressed strong disappointment regarding the proposed shift of financial responsibility for recycling from municipalitites to appliance producers. "Such a proposal has no economic, environmental or political logic," he argued, predicting that the cost of recycling would double if the proposal was adopted. Meli said the plans had come from nowhere, accusing the Commission of failing to assess the impact of such measures. 

The EU executive "seems to consider WEEE as a simple cost, whereas the metal scraps recovered through recycling have a value and municipalities are selling them," Meli added. Considering the fact that equipment producers do not control recycling management by municipalities, "why should we pay for the recycling?," he asked.

The European association of electrical and elctronic waste take-back systems (WEEE Forum) drew attention to the current economic turmoil and falling prices of leading base materials such as copper, steel aluminium and zinc. When the review proposals were drafted, it was thought that electronic waste would easily find a market due to the high value of raw materials, whereas now this parallel market "has almost completely dried up," stated the forum. 

Meanhwile, the take-back organisations of the WEEE Forum "have proven to be a beacon of stability" offering basic environmental services. "The future directive should acknowledge the fact that they are the only sustainable and stable solution to WEEE management. They are increasingly seen as part of the infrastructure, partly because they collect e-waste irrespective of brand," underlined WEEE Forum President Andreas Röthlisberger.  

Therefore, "the future directive should acknowledge the fact that they are the only sustainable and stable solution to WEEE management. They are increasingly seen as part of the infrastructure, partly because they collect e-waste irrespective of brand". The WEEE Forum hopes that policymakers will take this issue into account when discussing the Commission's proposal.

Environmental and health NGOs said the Commission proposals regarding the RoHS Directive were not strong enough, because they do not set  targets for phasing out additional hazardous chemicals used in electronics. NGOs also called on European regulators to keep the REACH process separate from the RoHS review. 

"REACH will be a very slow roll out of chemicals policy for all sectors not just the electronics industry. It is not a matter of double regulation: REACH regulation for these particular applications is not yet in place, while RoHS is," they stated. 

The REACH process is still in its infancy and it is "highly uncertain if and how REACH will address these hazardous chemicals in their electronics uses," while RoHS has to a large degree helped set a global standard for the electronics industry and is well understood by the relevant supply-chains," argued Lisette van Vliet, toxics policy advisor at the Health & Environment Alliance.

The European Commission estimates that each European citizen currently generates between 17 and 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. Around six million tonnes were generated in 1998 in the EU 15, the vast majority of which (90%) ended up in landfill dumps. This amount is 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, leaving room for further improvement and simplification.

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