Parliament backs ambitious e-waste policy

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This article is part of our special report Raw Materials.

The European Parliament backed new targets for collecting and recycling electronic waste yesterday (3 February), but said producers alone could not be left to cover the cost of collecting e-waste from private households.

The House's first reading of the recast of an EU directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) confirmed ambitions set by its environment committee last June.

A report drafted by German MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party) was adopted by a large majority– 580 votes to 37 with 22 abstentions.

Scope, collection target, cost

First, the lawmakers voted to broaden the scope of EU e-waste law by bringing all types of electrical and electronic equipment under the scope of the rules, except for listed exceptions, such as large installations and tools, military equipment and vehicles.

Second, they voted for a collection target of 85% of all electronic waste produced as from 2016, and said member states should be responsible for achieving the collection target rather than producers themselves. The Commission's original proposal suggested a target of 65% of the average weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the two previous years.

Lawmakers adopted, by a narrow margin, a Socialist proposal to split the costs of collecting e-waste from households between consumers, manufacturers and retailers.

Currently the collection is paid for by local authorities. The Commission's original proposal suggested that member states should encourage producers to finance the costs of separate collection from private households – in a drive to shift the costs of WEEE collection from taxpayers to consumers of electronic equipment (via producers) to bring financing in line with the "polluter pays" principle set out in the EU Treaties.

The House also backed a 50-75% recycling target (depending on category) and supported a new 5% re-use goal, which the Commission suggested. The current WEEE Directive has no targets for the re-use of whole appliances.

Finally, MEPs said that consumers should also be able to return very small electronic equipment waste items to retailers.

Fighting illegal exports

The Parliament also supported the Commission proposals for stricter inspections of electronic waste shipments to curb illegal exports of e-waste.

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

The lawmakers said that the revamped directive should make sure exporters carry the burden of proof that goods are reusable.

Registration

In order to reduce administrative costs and unnecessary administrative burdens for the producers, the Parliament backed a Commission proposal to harmonise national registration and reporting obligations for producers. The registers should be inter-operational, it said.

Having a one-stop-shop for registering products would also prevent the situation whereby registration fees are levied more than once, placing a recurring burden on producers.

Member states in search of a common approach

It is now the turn of EU member states in the Council of Ministers to consider the Parliament's position ahead of a possible second reading on the e-waste law. Environment ministers will discuss the matter next month, and try to find a common position.

Council progress report on the dossier, dated December 2010, indicates that discussions between member states continue on collection modalities, the level of the targets as well as on which equipment the revised law should cover.

The Parliament's draftsman, German MEP Florenz, regretted that "the Council has not moved very much up to now". He said the strongest opposition in the Council came from authorities made up of national experts who leave ministers unable to speed up discussions.

However, he said that Germany, together with some other countries keen to improve e-waste recycling, was now "going to move forward very aggressively" to push through an agreement.

Florenz expects opposition to the open scope of the directive. He believes there is also room for disagreement over who should pay for collecting e-waste from people's doorsteps and deliver it to a recycling depot.

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik welcomed the Parliament's support for ambitious e-waste collection and recycling targets. He underlined that a strengthened WEEE directive would help the EU reduce its dependency on imported or virgin materials.

Debating the report ahead of the vote, several MEPs stressed the need to raise awareness of the importance and value of recycling e-waste. They also emphasised the need to make recycling small appliances easier for consumers. 

Reacting to the final vote, Belgian MEP Kathleen Van Brempt (Socialists & Democrats) stressed that "recovered material has an estimated value of €2 billion per year, and some of the components used in these products are scarce and expensive raw materials. By retrieving them we would lower our imports and create jobs in the recycling sector".

Bulgarian MEP Vladko Todorov Panayotov (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) noted that "Europe is spending every year more than €130 billion for the import of precious raw materials, which are crucial for the competitiveness of key high-tech sectors of the EU's economy".

"With higher collection targets and modern ecological technologies for the treatment of electrical and electronic waste, the European Union can create new jobs, make substantial financial savings and secure a leading position in technological development. We must recycle more and in a better way. These appliances are rich in precious metals such as gold, paladium, platinum and cobalt which can be extracted for reuse," he said.

Green MEP Michail Tremopoulos (Greece) stressed the importance of 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.

"This applies to all retailers, including distant sellers (with the exception of micro-enterprises). Increasing the collection of these appliances and raising consumer awareness about this should reduce the amount of these small appliances ending up in the general waste stream and thereby escaping adequate treatment," he said.

Xavier Durieu, secretary-general of EuroCommerce, a retailers' organisation, said that while collection and recycling schemes are essential for achieving the ambitious targets Parliament has set, a current proposal that retailers should become collection points for very small volume waste (with an exemption for micro companies) is not the best option.

"Obliging retailers who sell phones to take back toasters is unwise. It will create some safety issues (light bulbs containing mercury break when deposited in shops) and could also jeopardise existing systems for the collection of small volume waste," Durieu said.

"EuroCommerce has always agreed that small volume waste should be collected in a similar way to normal waste i.e. at the door step of the household. Consumers are used to sorting out their waste. A new sort of bag for small volume waste would prove the most effective way to address the issue. Technically advanced sorting systems can already separate WEEE from packaging. Under these conditions, households would not even need an extra bin," Durieu added.

The European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (UEAPME) welcomed the exclusion of micro-retailers from the obligation 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".

However, UEAPME remains concerned "for those SMEs that will not benefit from the limits approved today. These companies will be transformed de facto into dumping grounds without their consent, a role that should be played by public authorities rather than by private enterprises".

"As no impact assessment was made beforehand and since these companies were not consulted in the run-up to the vote, the least the EU institutions can do at this stage is to foresee an economic study to evaluate the consequences of the new WEEE measures on the competitiveness of these companies," UEAPME added.

European engineering industry association Orgalime said that the vote result leaves European engineering companies "with mixed feelings and the jury is still out on whether the glass is half-full or half-empty".

While welcoming the "drive to define more realistic collection rates - albeit still ambitious," Orgalime said that "the new provisions on widening the scope leave industry in legal limbo yet again, this time with potential costly consequences, as some capital goods which would never find their way into household waste are likely to be in scope".

Orgalime also fears that the proposed modifications to financing the management of waste collection from households, including new provisions for sorting equipment destined for reuse, "will just shift additional burdens onto producers" resulting in increased costs for consumers with no additional benefit to them or the environment.

Luigi Meli, director-general of the European Committee of Domestic Appliance Manufacturers (CECED), welcomed progress in some areas of the report, but regretted that some key issues have been missed.

"If policymakers want to resolve the problems of WEEE then they must ensure that treatment requirements and reporting obligations cover all WEEE, not just the WEEE handled by producers. This loophole of the present WEEE legislation is one of the main reasons why so much WEEE slips through the system today," he said.

"Currently producers receive and treat approximately one third of WEEE, but two thirds of WEEE is collected by other actors who are not covered by the obligations of the current directive. Producers have no authority over these actors that collect WEEE for economic reasons to make a profit of its value. Neither can enforcement authorities require that these actors treat WEEE in accordance to the WEEE Directive, as these actors are not addressed by the directive. This problem will increase in the future given the growing scarcity of resources and the resulting increase in material prices," Meli added.

Stephane Arditi, senior waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said that "by voting in favour of an ambitious collection target based on WEEE generated, by claiming for standards on e-waste management and by enabling financial incentives for optimised design, the European Parliament has grasped the important potentials of the WEEE legislation to change our e-waste management from pure end of pipe solutions to a more integrated approach on resources efficiency".

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 improvement. 

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.

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.

  • 14 March 2011: EU environment ministers expected to reach political agreement on E-waste Directive.
  • Later in 2011: Second reading in European Parliament.

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