EU on collision course over e-waste collection

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The European Parliament and the 27 EU member states are set for difficult negotiations over the recast of the bloc’s electronic waste directive as MEPs insist on ambitious targets for collecting and recycling discarded fridges, phones and other e-waste than the member states can accept.

The European Parliament's Environment Committee voted yesterday on its second reading recommendation on the recast of the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, aiming at toughening existing rules on electrical and electronic equipment.

The report by German MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party) – adopted with 52 votes in favour, 1 against and 5 abstentions – confirms the House’s ambitious stand on e-waste set out at first reading earlier this year.

But some tough trialogue negotiations are foreseen between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU Council of Ministers before a second reading takes place in January. 

Targets at issue

In particular, the new targets for collecting electronic waste backed by the European Parliament are set to cause some trouble with reluctant EU member states.

Currently, a flat-rate annual target of 4kg per person is applied even though the EU executive estimates that each European currently generates 17-20 kg of e-waste per year.

The Commission has suggested a collection target of 65% of the average weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the two previous years but MEPs say targets should be based on actual e-waste generated, with 85% to be collected by 2016.

Meanwhile, the Council supports a 65% target based on goods going on sale, to be achieved eight years after the entry into force of the directive, presumably by 2020, with a further two years transition for some member states.

Depending on the waste category, MEPs also say that 70-85% of e-waste should be recovered and 50-75% recycled. They propose a separate 5% reuse target so that more functional goods get a new lease of life instead of being scrapped.

Retailers asked to take back small e-waste

Many smaller e-waste items, such as light bulbs, mobile phones and electronic toothbrushes are thrown away with other rubbish even though they contain harmful or valuable substances.

To tackle the problem, MEPs say consumers should be allowed to hand back very small appliances to all electronics retailers – except the smallest – for free, regardless of whether the customer buys a new product or not.

But the European small businesses association UEAPME said such obligation would be “excessive and disproportionate for the vast majority of small electronics retailers” who would risk being transformed into “dumping grounds without their consent”.

Scope

The lawmakers also want to broaden the reach of the EU's e-waste law by bringing all types of electrical and electronic equipment under the scope of the rules unless explicitly excluded, instead of applying the current restricted list of equipment concerned.

EU member states also believe that the scope should be widened but not until six years after the entry into force of the recast – or around 2018.

The Commission has not proposed an open scope, as no proper impact study on the implications for businesses and the environment of taking such a step has yet been conducted.

Export ban

The Parliament report adopted yesterday also suggests forbidding any e-waste exports to countries outside the OECD and only allow export of non-functioning products within OECD countries if there is a guarantee that this product will be fixed and able to be re-used.

"Collecting and recycling e-waste is good for the environment and good for the economy. Parliament's ambitious but achievable targets will help recover valuable raw materials and cut the flow of e-waste to landfills, incinerators and developing countries," said rapporteur MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party, Germany).

Florenz explained that changing the current collection target of four kilograms per head into 85% of e-waste in the market by 2016 "forces member states to a systematic mapping of e-waste", puts an end to national exemptions" and allows comparing results between the EU-27.

The Greens welcomed the moves to increase the scope and collection targets and to tighten important loopholes with regard to shipments to non-OECD countries.

Greek Green MEP Michail Tremopoulos said that obliging retailers to take back very small waste appliances, such as light bulbs or mobile phones, regardless of whether a new appliance is sold at the same time would be a good thing. It would increase the collection of these appliances and raise consumer awareness about the topic which would “reduce the amount of these small appliances ending up in the general waste stream and thereby escaping adequate treatment,” he said.

Bulgarian MEP Vladko Todorov Panayotov, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) Group’s shadow rapporteur, said that “with this report we are taking further steps towards establishing a common EU market for waste treatment.  Europe would be not only more resource efficient, by recycling greater volumes of electrical and electronic waste and therefore less reliant on external supply, but it will also spare the environment".

But the European Engineering Industries Association (Orgalime) said that policymakers should be reminded that, originally, the point of the recast was “to tweak aspects of the original Directive not thought to be working well”. Whereas now “the dossier seems to have ‘run away with itself’,“ and turned into a major revision.

Orgalime’s director general Adrian Harris said that “having consistently argued the need for this recast in the first place, we now find ourselves attempting to limit the potential damage to an already fragile manufacturing economy that could stem from proposals, such as i) an open scope without impact assessment, ii) weakened enforceability through an exclusively European approach for ‘the producer’ in waste management legislation or iii) the obligation to establish design requirements on the recyclability of products by 2014 without taking into account existing study findings and procedures of the Eco Design Directive.”

European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (UEAPME) is also “disappointed” by the Parliament’s stance, which seeks to oblige retailers to collect small waste electric and electronic goods left by consumers at no cost and without any requirement on consumers to buy a new product of the same kind.

UEAPME sustainable development director Guido Lena said that “the ‘one-to-one’ system backed by the Council is a much more sensible option to which we wholeheartedly subscribe. Tying the collection of e-waste with the purchase of a similar product on the spot would at least partially balance the additional obligations for SMEs. While nobody questions the need to better handle electronic waste, the burden must be properly shared and cannot be placed squarely on private enterprises.”

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 EU's 2003 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 much room for improvement. 

The European Commission tabled a proposal to review the WEEE directive in December 2008.

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. 

In addition, the Commission hopes that the recast will improve implementation and enforcement of the laws, both rather poor so far, and cut related unnecessary administrative burden.

The EU executive's 2008 impact assessment on the recast showed that only one third of the WEEE produced annually appears to be collected, treated and reported according to the current legislation, while illegal trade and dumping of WEEE in third countries remains widespread.

  • 16 Jan. 2012: Parliament plenary vote currently planned.

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