At least 85% of electrical and electronic waste generated in the European Union must be recycled by 2020, under updated legislation that comes into effect this week. But will it succeed?
The scope of the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), which was adopted in 2002 and became law in the UK in 2007, is being extended to capture a wider variety of waste, including different technologies and other waste which currently escapes recycling by being shipped outside of Europe for disposal.
The revised measures should help to recapture and reuse more valuable materials such as gold, silver, copper and rare earth metals that are used in mobile phones, computers and televisions, according to Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik. "In these times of economic turmoil and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities come together,” Potočnik said.
EU member states 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.
The legislation was adopted by the European Parliament in January, when it was backed by national leaders, and the European Council expanded the scope of the directive in June to include solar panels, fluorescent lighting containing mercury and equipment containing ozone-depleting substances.
Member states have until 14 February 2014 to adopt the directive into their national laws.
Currently, less than one third of waste electrical and electronic equipment is recycled. Much of that which is returned for recycling is exported illegally. In the UK, the Environment Agency prosecuted the 11 people for illegally shipping electrical waste to West Africa in November 2010.
Such activities undermine law-abiding recycling businesses and risk harm to human health and the environment in the recipient country. All shipments of any waste are subject to regulatory controls.
The new Directive requires national governments to provide information on where goods can be recycled, and calls on national governments to do more to prevent illegal exports of e-waste.
The existing EU collection target is 4 kg of WEEE per person, which equates throughout Europe to about 2 million tons per year, out of around 10 million tonnes. By 2020, it is estimated that this total volume will increase to 12 million tons.
The final target of the new Directive will ensure that in 2020 around 10 million tons, or roughly 20kg per capita, will be separately collected.
Retailers have complained that the burden of the cost of collection, transport and arranging for the recycling of waste would be unfairly borne by them.
According to Gerrard Fisher, the special adviser on WEEE at WRAP, the legislation is forcing designers to think about ways of designing products so that they can be “easily serviced and upgraded and reduce the cost of repairing" as well as making them easy to be recycled at the end of their life.
He says that “companies can do this by considering higher specification components, designing parts for equal lifetime, designing for disassembly and ensuring replaceable and upgradable components have easy access ability. All of these things can help future proof designs and enhance brand value," he says.
For example, Hewlett-Packard has come up with a more modular design approach to extend the life expectancy of some of its products. Its Z1 PC has been designed so that everything from the hard drive to the graphics can be replaced or upgraded without any need for tools. This has earned the product the gold rating from global green electronics organisation EPEAT.
EPEAT is a comprehensive environmental rating that helps identify greener computers and other electronic equipment.
Another company taking a similar approach is Plextech, a design consultancy which services the communications, aerospace, defence and medical sectors. Its vice president of marketing and sales, Henk Koopmans, says that they like the modular approach because “it makes it easier and cheaper disassemble products. This means modules, such as power supplies and timer units, can be reused in their entirety because of their generic functionality."
This trend is driven by the Ecodesign Directive, which, in the UK, is supported by Defra's Market Transformation Programme.
The European Commission is carrying out an internal consultation on the draft Ecodesign Regulation for computers and computer servers.
Improving the quality of refurbished goods
The WEEE Directive is also giving rise to a new market in refurbished electrical or electronic products. A quality label has been developed to give consumers confidence that such products are “safe, functional, free of protected data and backed by warranty," says Gerrard Fisher.
The PAS 141 label, he says, “can also help regulatory bodies differentiate between ‘bona fide’ and illegal exports of waste".
Earlier this year, Defra launched an action plan to promote reuse of unwanted electrical equipment, or the extraction of valuable metals therefrom. They offered financial support of £200,000 for businesses to come up with new ways of reusing goods or recycling precious metals. They also set up, with the Business, Innovation and Skills Department, a new industry-led consortium to spearhead efforts to find opportunities in this sector in the global market.
The cost imperative
The trade view is expressed by Richard Waterhouse of the trade association Intellect.
He says that although companies will adhere to legislation, cost is the main driving factor. “With the very often small margins in electronics, manufacturers can't be expected to produce a product that is more eco-friendly to the detriment of cost and form factor. Extending the product's life cycle is an option, but again it's about cost, time and convenience. We live in a consumer driven society and the reality is that most consumers would rather buy a new phone than sending their old one for repair".
Fisher's response is that companies “should focus their efforts on producing high-quality goods, designing sustainability and increasing their brand reputation, while then going down the path of a price war".
He continues: “since the electronics market isn't actually growing, companies need to ask themselves how they will expand their market share. If they try to compete on price, they are probably going to produce lower quality products, which isn't a long-term survival strategy".
There are three types of electrical and electronic equipment: fashionable items that are perceived to be cool, investment products such as televisions and sound systems, and what Defra refers to as ‘workhorse’ electrical goods, like washing machines that have to last a long time.
Fisher argues that consumers are more likely to value longevity in the latter category.
He is optimistic: “Bigger brands are now looking at how they can design in a more environmentally friendly way and are focusing on long term sustainability plans. At WRAP, we are currently looking at ways in which we can help such companies do their business differently so that it is not based on a sales/volume/profit model. What we want is for companies to go beyond compliance and improve practices.”
He also says that “more promotion and awareness is needed if the problem of e-waste is ever going to get better."
This is partly what the new Directive aims to support.