MEPs want curbs on illegal e-waste shipments

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The EU needs to increase checks on electronic waste exports to avoid illegal dumping and stop the shipment of valuable and sometimes rare raw materials outside the bloc, MEPs in the European Parliament's environment committee said, voting to update EU rules on the disposal of waste electronic equipment yesterday (22 June).

The committee adopted, with amendments, a report by German MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party) on a recast of an EU directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) with 54 votes in favour and one against amid three abstentions.

A report on the related Directive on the Restriction of the Use of certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS), such as lead, mercury and cadmium, which also deals with their substitution, was adopted earlier this month (EURACTIV 03/06/10).

The MEPs urged the EU's 27 member states to tackle illegal shipments of e-waste. 

Although only reusable electronic goods may be exported, large amounts of waste are exported illegally to developing countries, where inadequate treatment can have serious health and environmental consequences.

These exports also lead to losses of valuable secondary raw materials and environmental degradation, MEPs stressed, arguing that increased checks on WEEE exports are needed to enforce the directive.

Last week, a European Commission expert group urged the EU to step up the recycling of a number of 'critical' raw materials used in high-tech products, like mobile phones and everyday consumer items (EURACTIV 18/06/10).

Collection target for member states

MEPs also underlined that illegal exports of waste can be tempered by a higher waste collection target.

They voted for a collection target of 85% of all electronic waste produced, and said member states should be responsible for achieving the WEEE collection target rather than producers themselves. 

The Commission proposed setting a binding collection target for manufacturers of 65% of the average weight of WEEE put on the market during the preceding two years from 2016. But many stakeholders argue that this target is not feasible, because older goods are often stored or given away rather than thrown away.

EU lawmakers also argued that as member states generate varying levels of waste, they should be free to set higher national targets themselves.

The committee called for separate collection targets for small equipment and lamps, including lamps containing mercury and incandescent light bulbs. MEPs stressed that it is important to ensure that these – and the hazardous substances they contain – are kept out of the general waste stream.

Retailers to help collect small appliances

The MEPs suggested involving retailers more effectively in collecting small appliances like kettles or electronic tooth brushes, which easily end up in the general waste stream and thus escape treatment, reuse or recycling.

The committee said citizens should be allowed to hand back very small appliances to any retailer free of charge.

Member states remain divided

While the Spanish EU Presidency had hoped to reach an agreement on the dossier during its term, discussions will continue under the Belgian EU Presidency.

A Spanish Presidency progress report on the matter, tabled at the latest meeting of EU environment ministers on 11 June, shows major splits in the approach on several points between the EU-27.

Countries disagree, for example, on which waste should be covered by the legislation and on whether the term 'producer' should be defined at national or EU level. The definition of 'producer' affects ownership and financial responsibility for the waste.

However, the biggest problem seems to be the Commission's proposal for a collection target of 65% of the weight of WEEE (EURACTIV 23/10/09). Fourteen delegations find the collection target too ambitious and not sufficiently realistic. As an alternative, some suggest achieving this target gradually by reaching 35-50% in 2016 and 65% in 2020, for example.

Greek MEP Michail Tremopoulos (Greens/EFA) welcomed the vote outcome, in particular regarding the collection target, which "allows having the same target for all member states while accounting for the different level of consumption in different member states".

"And since everything that is separately collected needs to undergo adequate treatment, the days of uncontrolled dumping, burning or even illegal exports of this often hazardous waste should soon be over," he added.

CECED, which represents the European household appliances industry, noted "some progress in delivering a better WEEE Directive".

CECED Director-General Luigi Meli stressed that "to tackle the problem of WEEE, the directive must cover all actors and all WEEE" and that "failure to do this is likely to result with WEEE continuing to be illegally exported".

He added that "the fundamental problem is that WEEE is not being returned for treatment under schemes established or paid for by producers," while other actors in the waste management chain, who are not covered by the current directive, are seeking to make a profit from WEEE while failing to comply with it.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) welcomed the environment committee's "ambition to improve this legislation" and the "drastic increase" in the collection of e-waste.

The NGO also applauded MEPs' support for more stringent exports rule to control waste flows leaving Europe and "the need to ensure financial resources for municipalities and those required by law to collect e-waste if such an ambition is to be met".

Regarding the hazardous substances and scarce resources contained in e-waste, the EEB has been pushing for incentives to improve the ecological design of a product in the first place.

Stephane Arditi, product and waste policy officer at the bureau, said the vote was "an acknowledgement that waste policies can no longer be considered from a mere 'end of pipe' perspective, but they should instead mobilise instruments to consider impacts on natural resources, as well as recycling opportunities, right from the design stage of appliances".

The European Engineering Industries Association (Orgalime) welcomed "the committee's clear objection to a collection rate that applies to producers and is calculated on the basis of 'equipment placed on the market in previous years'".

However, it is concerned about several proposals which, if adopted, risk "upsetting the just created WEEE structures in member states". For example, the association fears that "opening the door for changes on financing collection from private households risks unnecessarily upsetting freshly set up WEEE schemes. It may require producers to contribute to financing activities, which are not under their control and for which municipalities already charge local taxes today".

Moreover, the proposal for an open scope, even with a set of exclusions, "creates an unmanageable situation where manufacturers cannot determine whether their product is in scope or not," said Orgalime director general Adrian Harris.

 

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 room for further improvement and simplification. 

WEEE is complemented by a directive on restricting the use of certain hazardous substances (RoHS), which are often contained in equipment and may end up leaking into local water supplies when dumped in landfills. 

The European 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. 

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 on third countries remains widespread.

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