MEPs approve tougher rules on electronic waste

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The European Parliament yesterday (19 January) approved legislation to strengthen the recovery of computers and other electronic and electrical waste while tightening exports of used goods to developing countries, ending months of hard-fought negotiations.

MEPs adopted the revamped Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive after months of pitched battles over how ambitious the binding law would be.

“We have reached an agreement and it has not been easy,” German MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party), the parliamentary rapporteur, said before the vote.

The legislation obliges EU countries to collect up to 85% of junked refrigerators, mobile phones, computers and other electronic products by 2019 for recycling, replacing a current system based on weight. The Commission had recommended a 65% target.

Only about one-third of electronic waste is recycled today, and half is exported, according to the Parliament.

Among other provisions, the legislation:

  • Requires larger retailers to provide collection points for discarded phones and other small devices to encourage consumers to recycle – although some business groups complained this placed the collection burden on them.
  • Introduces a new requirement aimed at preventing European companies from dumping potentially hazardous goods outside the EU.

The compromise agreement on WEEE garnered broad support across political groups and national leaders signed off on the recast directive a month ago.

Advocates say the new directive will help businesses by setting common EU standards aimed at boosting recycling and encouraging resource efficiency. They also praise new measures aimed at ending potentially harmful substances from ending up at disposal sites abroad.

“We have 27 different standards, so if you ask the question, what is recycling, you could get 27 different definitions,” Florenz told a news conference in Strasbourg. “The Commission says that is not really the case, but it seems that the member states are doing whatever they want and after having been a member for such a long time of this house, I can tell you they they do do what they want.”

The EU’s 27 countries will have until mid-2013 to incorporate the new rules into national law once given formal approval by the EU Council of Ministers, though new members will have two extra years to meet the new targets.

Mining silver and gold

MEPs see the more demanding collection and recycling targets in step with the EU’s commitment to improve resource efficiency. Gold, silver and rare earth metals contained in discarded products or shipped abroad could be recycled in Europe to cut dependence on imports, advocates said.

"The collecting target for member states set by the new regulation is very ambitious and we have introduced a new category of collecting material for the small IT and telecom equipment,” said Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Socialists and Democrats group.

“This means that the recovery of rare earth materials will improve greatly," the Swedish MEP said.

Some environmental groups, however, said the legislation did not go far enough in setting higher targets sooner. While the 85% target is an ultimate goal, the legislation imposes a recovery target of 45% of new electronic sales in 2016 and 65% in 2019 and gives newer EU members extra time to comply.

“Collection targets have been delayed and the introduction of economic instruments for greener design, reuse targets and ambitious recycling targets have been left to a future revision, which is a bitter blow to the environment and Europe’s economic development,” said Stéphane Arditi, senior policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau. 

The conservation group also criticised provisions on exports which will require companies to certify that goods sent abroad still have some practical use, saying there is too much wiggle room to export junk.

Chris Davies (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, UK), one of the parliamentary negotiators on the directive, defended the results.

"MEPs fought hard to set a higher target for the recovery, recycling and re-use of e-waste,” Davies said in a statement.

"The new rules will make clearer what used items can be legally exported. This will help to curb the criminals who ship electronic gadgets overseas where it is dismantled by children and the poor often in hazardous and toxic conditions.”

Retail groups complained that the directive unfairly makes businesses responsible for collection and recycling.

“This places the burden squarely on private enterprises and is simply not acceptable,” the European craft and small business employers’ group EUAPME said in a statement.

Guido Lena, susitainable development director for the European craft and SME employers’ organisation UEAPME, called the Parliament-approved WEEE Directive “a clear step back compared to the current ‘one-to-one’ system, which ties the collection of e-waste with the purchase of a similar product on the spot."

"Despite the safeguards introduced by the compromise, the general principle approved today is that is fine and fair to transform private companies into dumping grounds without their consent. This places the burden squarely on private enterprises and is simply not acceptable.”

But Lena said that “on the positive side", MEPs exempted retailers with less than 400 square meters of retail space from having to collect small electronic items for recycling.

MEP Kathleen Van Brempt (Socialists and Democrats, Belgium) said: “Today, a tonne of mobile phones delivers up to 300 grams of gold, where gold from ore contains 2-3 grams per tonne. Seeing that only a very small proportion of mobile phones are recycled (1%-2% worldwide), it is clear that today's gold diggers should aim at waste instead of mining.”

The Reuse and Recycling EU Social Enterprises (RREUSE) network called the legislation a disappointment. In a statement, the Brussels organisation said: “The measures agreed will severely hinder reuse rates of WEEE in Europe and not exploit the clear benefits and potential of reuse in Europe. This decisions were taken regardless of  studies showing that one in two Europeans would be happy to purchase second-hand electronic equipment and that reusing appliances could not only create up to 200 jobs per 1,000 tonnes of elctronics, but as well help achieve the resource efficiency needs of Europe that the European Commission is currently promoting.”

MEP Vladko Panayotov (Bulgaria), shadow rapporteur for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, said the new directive would boost reuse of electronic waste. “As liberals, we fought for cracking down on the illegal shipment of waste and including all waste streams in the scope. Now this is a reality. We have ensured that these precious resources will be recycled accordingly in a more environmentally responsible way thus helping to achieve higher levels of resource efficiency".

The head of Orgalime, the European Engineering Industries Association, expressed mixed feelings. “What was meant to be a minor change to improve the functioning of this directive and offering industry more certainty has turned into a revision 'exercise' with areas such as the scope still as unclear as before,” said Adrian Harris, director general of Orgalime.

 

“Our industries have already made considerable investment ensuring the compliance and success of the existing WEEE take back obligations – it is critical that the measures that are about to become law do not affect the competitiveness of the companies that Orgalime represents (95% of which are SMEs), during these harsh economic and financial times.”

Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik called the WEEE vote a boost to efforts to improve efficiency and recycling of raw materials like gold, silver, copper and rare metals.

"In these challenging times of economic change and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities for European industry come together," Poto?nik said in a statement.

"Today, the European Parliament has given a great boost to this policy, raising the binding collection levels to 85% by 2019. I hope this will encourage some member states to be more ambitious, and meet the new targets even sooner than this deadline."

Green MEP Michalis Tremopoulos (Greece) welcomed efforts to restrict exports of Europe’s waste. “The revised rules represent an important step forward for the environment, as well as the EU economy, as improved collection and recycling of WEEE will reduce environmentally unsound treatment and enable us to mine waste electrical/electronic components, improving our resource efficiency."

Julian Newman, campaigns director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London action group, said the WEEE revisions “are very welcome but they need to be effectively enforced.”

Newman is the co-author of the 2011 report System Failure, which exposed illegal e-waste trade in the UK. “The new targets are more ambitious than those currently in effect. It’s good that the EU has recognised its responsibility to deal with e-waste appropriately and to prevent it being illegally exported to poorer countries where it poses such a serious threat to the environment and to human health," Newman said.

“It remains up to the EU’s individual member states to have strong penalties in place for illegal e-waste exporters – effective enforcement is the key to dealing with the growing mountain of e-waste we produce.”

 

The decade-old Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive sets a flat recycling target of 4 kilograms per person per year, a standard that some MEPs say is too difficult to enforce.

Under revisions adopted by the European Parliament and backed by national leaders, EU countries will have to recover 45 tonnes of e-waste for every 100 tonnes of e-goods sold by 2016, rising to 65% of sales by 2019 - or 85% of all e-waste generated. Newer member countries get an extension until 2021.

To encourage recycling, consumers will be able to return smaller electronic items – such as shavers and mobile phones - to larger retailers while bigger items and appliances would be taken to other collection points.

MEPs also introduced rules to require that companies to certify with customs officials that electronic goods being shipped outside the EU are to be repaired or reused. This measure is aimed at preventing dumping of waste in developing countries.

 

  • Mid-2013: Deadline for EU countries to adopt the WEEE Directive into national law.
  • 2016: At least 45% of e-goods sold must be recovered.
  • 2019: At least 65% of e-good sold must be collected, or 85% of overall e-waste
  • 2021: Deadline for newer EU countries to comply.

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