Ministers back moderate ambitions on electronic waste

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After the European Parliament last month called for an ambitious 85% e-waste collection target, EU environment ministers this week backed European Commission proposals for a 65% quota and postponed its implementation by four years.

Meeting in Brussels on 14 March, EU environment ministers reached a political agreement on the recast of an EU directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), proposed by the Commission in 2008.

The EU executive's original proposal suggested, for 2016, a collection target of 65% of the average weight of e-waste placed on the market in the preceding year. But member states could not agree on the quota proposed for 2016 and the way to regulate possible exceptions.

Instead, they agreed on a Hungarian EU Presidency compromise proposal of allowing a transition period before the 65% quota becomes obligatory. Instead of 65%, the collection target should be 45% for 2016 and the 65% target would only have to be achieved eight years after the entry into force of the recast, presumably by 2020. Several member states would be given a further two years due to "specific national circumstances".

EU lawmakers last month voted for a collection target of 85% of all electronic waste generated as from 2016.

Scope of the directive

Ministers backed the European Parliament’s call to broaden the reach of EU 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. However, they agreed that the scope should not be widened until six years after the entry into force of the recast, meaning 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.

Registration of producers

As for the registration of electronic equipment manufacturers, the Commission has proposed to establish a definition of producers at European level. It has also proposed to harmonise registration and reporting obligations for producers to allow them only to register and report in one member state for all their activities in the EU.

The European Parliament backed this approach, but the environment ministers would prefer to see different national approaches to defining producers, as well as separate national registers.

The dossier will now go back to the European Parliament for a second reading.

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik, reacting to the Council's decision to delay the entry into force of the new 65% collection target, said that "the Commission can understand that certain member states will potentially need longer to adjust, but adding four years across all 27 member states is not a strong enough approach to such an important issue".

"We believe our proposal was realistic and achievable, and that the environmental benefits, the economic benefits for securing supplies of valuable recycled materials and creating jobs, and the benefits of stopping illegal exports of waste for treatment in poor labour and environmental conditions, make it highly worthwhile," Poto?nik said.

On the registration of producers, Poto?nik lamented the fact that the Council agreement does not reflect the Commission's proposal for a series of practical improvements to cut administrative burdens and costs for companies.  "The Commission can understand that member states are reluctant to replace the existing national systems in place, but the cumulative effect of those diverse systems is multiple payments, multiple legal representation and administrative burdens for companies."

As for widening the directive's scope, Poto?nik noted that "whilst the Commission can consider changes to the scope and might favour certain changes in principle (such as inclusion of PV panels), these must be based on proper impact assesments which also consider alternative approaches. The Presidency proposal pre-judges the outcome of such impact assessments".

German MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party), the European Parliament's rapporteur on the dossier, also expressed disappointment over the Council agreement.

"Member states that kick up a fuss about raw material policy tend to be weaklings when it comes to hard and fast EU legislation. The Council's position is insufficient," he said.

Regarding registration of manufacturers, he said that "it seems that member states want to stick to the archaic system of national registration. This would mean heavy burdens for smaller companies facing a lot of red tape with the present system. Parliament wants to save some €66m a year through the single EU registration".

The European Engineering Industries Association (Orgalime) welcomed the Council agreement in particular regarding maintaining the closed scope for a six-year period, "to allow for an impact assessment to be carried out to judge whether the scope needs amending and whether the suggested reshuffle of scope categories which industry sees as just burdensome makes sense".

Orgalime, which did not seen the necessity to recast the WEEE DIrective in the first place, stresses that constant change in the regulatory environment affecting companies hampers the overall framework conditions for companies operating in Europe and might lead to a drift of industrial investment overseas.

"All too frequently the regular reviews of legislation which are meant to allow minor adjustments, turn into major overhauls which are hardly proportionate to the benefits they are claimed to bring," noted Orgalime Director-General Adrian Harris.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) welcomed the efforts of the Hungarian EU Presidency to push through an agreement, but said that "by lowering the collection ambition member states will not properly address the risks of illegal export and improper treatment. A higher collection rate would minimise the risk of e-waste being illegally dumped elsewhere".

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.

  • Autumn 2011: European Parliament's environment committee expected to adopt report at second reading.

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