LONDON As European Union member countries ready procedures for the recycling and disposal of electronic equipment, those monitoring their progress are warning that multinational equipment makers should similarly be gearing up to comply with the evolving European Union directives. It is now predicted that legislation could be in place and affecting companies that design and sell equipment in Europe as early as 2003.
While it is up to the European nations to implement the directives, the impact is likely to be felt around the globe, since equipment makers and vendors will have to comply taking back discarded equipment for recycling if necessary if they hope to sell product in Europe.
Europe's waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) directives look set to repeat in this decade what happened with European electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) legislation in the 1990s. In the case of the EMC rulings, at least some U.S. companies failed to react to the legislation until equipment was labeled illegal at ports of entry into Europe.
The immediate concern for the EU, however, is to finalize directives that ensure compliance on the part of consumers, vendors and waste-management facilities by spreading the burdens of participation and sharpening the focus of the guidelines.
A design-for-recycling directive from the European Commission is being discussed that would come on top of two other proposals for WEEE procedures (themselves a division of what had been a single proposed directive). The third directive is expected to run a year behind the two others in terms of legislative adoption.
"With support, the original directive might have been approved by the end of this year; but this appears unlikely, given the record of other directives," said Jeff Cooper, new duties policy manager at the U.K. government's Environment Agency. "The middle to end of 2001 is a more likely timetable for adoption. There would then be 18 months for the U.K. to introduce regulations after approval by the European Parliament.
"At this stage, early 2003 seems the probable date for the necessary regulations to be implemented in the United Kingdom," Cooper said.
Since a number of EU member states have already initiated policies to deal with WEEE, there is an urgent need for common targets for achievement of those objectives within the context of the unified market, sources said. The directive should also guard against potential distortions of the principle of the best practicable environmental option in treating WEEE for recovery and disposal, they said.
"The scope of the proposed directive is too broad," said Cooper. "An increasing range of items will come under the directive because there are no exclusions from its scope."
For example, greeting cards and socks equipped with music chips could be categorized as toys under the WEEE guidelines. But fewer environmental benefits would be derived from treating those items as WEEE than from recovering them respectively as paper goods and textiles. Therefore, Cooper said, there must be some form of exclusion test for items peripheral to the directive.
"Increasingly, items of electronic equipment could be classified in more than one category of WEEE," he noted. "A mechanism for consistent classification should be developed through negotiation at EU level, relying on pragmatic threshold levels and restrictions to the scope of the directive."
The proposed directive requires member states to ensure that systems are set up so that final holders and distributors can return WEEE from private households at no charge. Member states must ensure the accessibility of collection facilities. That will allow them to decide what type of system or systems would be appropriate for different types of WEEE or different areas.
"It is important that the final holders and distributors should be able to return WEEE free of charge in order to encourage the recycling and safe disposal of these items," said Cooper. "But there should rightly be the flexibility to have different options for dealing with different types of WEEE. There are existing systems for particular types of WEEE."
The pivotal role of civic amenity (CA) public waste disposal sites and recycling centers needs to be addressed. Those sites act as both a normal disposal route for certain types of WEEE and a fallback option when other options are precluded. It is only natural, therefore, that the public will expect to be able to deposit WEEE items at such sites for initial sorting before the items' return to the manufacturers for processing. Indeed, initial evidence from some European countries suggests it is most cost-effective to utilize CA sites for the initial collection of items of WEEE.
But arguments persist over who should shoulder the costs for such collections. "Many businesses have argued that consumers are unlikely to bring many WEEE items back to retail outlets and that businesses are reluctant to accept items of WEEE, for reasons of health and safety, hygiene, lack of storage space and other factors," said Cooper. "However, there also appears to be a reluctance among certain of these businesses to accept a share of the costs that will be incurred by local authorities in segregating WEEE from other wastes coming into the CA sites."
The government will have to decide whether funding for collections through such facilities should rest with the local authorities or with the producers. Given the costs the local authorities will incur in providing the facilities for WEEE segregation and sorting, the thinking is that industry should fund storage containers and other items of collection infrastructure. That would not only help local authorities ensure the best initial segregation for collection from CA sites but also enable WEEE to be transported in suitably designed containers for safe delivery to treatment facilities.
"Member states must ensure that consumers are encouraged to contribute to the collection, treatment and recovery of WEEE," Cooper said. "The proposals that are outlined in the DTI Department of Trade and Industry paper are the minimum necessary for helping the public to play their part in the process. When the collection targets are revised, it will be necessary to review the extent of consumer education to ensure that it is sufficient to meet the directives' new targets and to contribute to the government's broader objectives."
While the U.K. government is reluctant to ask local authorities to provide facilities for WEEE because of the associated costs, it would still be in the equipment producers' best interests to ensure such facilities are established, Cooper said.
But it is perceived that long-term solutions for the collection of WEEE will be sacrificed to aid short-term competitive advantage. Cooper is skeptical that industry will be able to develop a comprehensive and coherent proposal.
Darren Rea is features editor of Electronics Times, EE Times' sister paper in the United Kingdom.