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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive

Friday, May 23, 2008

On July 1st, 2007, a much-trumpeted new environmental directive came into force in the UK and across the European Union: Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, ironically abbreviated to WEEE. The European Commission claim the legislation ensures that:
Producers will be responsible for taking back and recycling electrical and electronic equipment. This will provide incentives to design electrical and electronic equipment in an environmentally more efficient way, which takes waste management aspects fully into account. Consumers will be able to return their equipment free of charge.
So when our digital set-top box gave up its thirst for power and refused to give in to all bullying at the end of my screwdriver, and when two of my Xbox controllers became so clogged with dust that they no longer functioned, I assumed that it would be possible to recycle these in accordance with WEEE procedures.

Because we still had the receipt for the Freeview box, my first thought was to return it to the retailer, Tesco. I visited their website to check whether our local store has such facilities, at which point I started to suspect that the WEEE legislation is not so robust as is made out. Explaining their compliance with a benchmark piece of environmental legislation, the UK's biggest retailer devotes a mere small paragraph on their corporate website:
2007/08 finally sees the implementation of the WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directive in the UK. In support of this, Tesco has continued to play an active role in the development of the Distributor Take Back Scheme. This will provide a mechanism for retailers who do not wish or are unable to provide WEEE returns facilities in their stores to fund the provision of facilities at upgraded local authority civic amenity sites. We believe this arrangement will provide the most sustainable and effective solution for customers.
I am not sure that the most effective solution for customers - who presumably go to Tesco stores on a near weekly basis - is for the retailer to pass on responsibility to local councils with their distributed waste disposal sites.

With my nose now sniffing the air of waste (or WEEE!), I investigated further. Directed to the UK implementation of the legislation, The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations 2006, I found that - contrary to my earlier belief - it is not a requirement of either producers, retailers or distributors to provide like-for-like or instore recycling schemes. Rather, the legislation can be complied with if the retailer signs up to one of 37 approved "Producer Compliance Schemes."

One such scheme involves providing financial support for upgrading local council waste disposal sites, which is precisely what Tesco have done. However, the problem with the legislation is the lack of transparency. To register with a compliance scheme retailers must pay a registration fee and inform the scheme of the total of electronic equipment they place in the market each year. There will obviously be a tendency to underestimate this data. However, will this be picked up at the point of recycling by the public bodies now made responsible for the trade waste? The "financing of the costs of the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal of WEEE from private households" is determined by a formula: "The amount of the relevant WEEE" - seriously, it's hard not to laugh - "for which each producer shall be responsible shall be calculated in relation to each of the categories of EEE" through the formula (A / B) x C.

A is the amount of tonnes of EEE that has been put onto the market by that producer over the particular period (remember, this amount is estimated by the producers themselves). B is the total that has been put onto the market by all producers in the same period. Thus the division ensures that a large retailer like Tescos will contribute the appropriate ratio of total waste as compared to an individual small shop. C is the multiplier for the amount of EEE deposited at a collection facility, with a consequent cost of disposal and recycling.

The thing to note here is that for financing local authority recycling schemes, the formula applies only to the amount of waste that consumers themselves actively take to be recycled. Thus whilst the legislation also requires retailers to mark EEE products with a crossed-out wheelie bin, the retailer is not under obligation to make clear how precisely to recycle the product (though under Section 17 they are obliged to provide information on the different constituent materials in the product), nor to explain to consumers how they are complying with WEEE capabilities through third parties.

It is therefore entirely contrary to Tesco's financial interests to direct me from their corporate website to the specific council site at which I can recycle my old set-top box. My waste would add a small chunk to the "C" half of the equation. Rather, I have to take the initiative and work out my nearest capable site through Recycle More, and to transport it there myself (with the added cost of carbon emissions from my car journey).

In the case of my WEEE, when I did get to our nearest council facility, I could not see any signs of the added investment one would expect. In contrast to the neat skips for garden waste, cardboard, paper etc., the WEEE section is apparently just an undesignated pile in the corner: TVs piled on fridges, digital set top boxes mixed with desktop monitors, all items with different disposal requirements and hazardous materials. Where the money actually goes remains to be seen beneath the pile of rubbish.

Incidentally, don't think I am picking on Tesco. At best, Asda have precisely the same policy. At worst, Morrisons and Sainsbury's do not appear to have any information on their websites or in their corporate responsibility reports. By contrast to all these four, the Currys group seem to have an excellent policy, offering free in-store recycling when you buy a replacement product from them, even if the old one was not sold by Currys. Their home delivery service will also collect old large kitchen appliances, such as fridges, as new ones are dropped off.

So what, then, is the solution for a piece of legislation that should have tightened the knot tying producers to the waste of products they promote, but which instead has at its centre a major loophole? Because of the formula, retailers will underestimate the amount of goods they will sell; more significantly, it is not in their interests to increase the waste deposited at council sites because this will be reflected in the "C" aspect of the equation, and so they do not actively advertise the scheme. The answer is to turn the formula around. The moment individual consumers take it upon themselves to recycle more, the more this will increase the burden on companies, encouraging them perhaps to take recycling schemes in house (as Currys have done) and certainly to look at the amount and nature of electricals waste they produce. Is it really worth promoting that shaver with a battery, over the simple plastic one? Is it counterproductive to encourage people to upgrade their computers every six months?

As ever, though, the real issue is one of the chicken and the egg. Local councils or government will not want to invest in encouraging individual recycling, for example through kerbside collections, when the companies should be paying for it under the legislative framework. On the other hand, retailers will not want to make themselves financially liable for the full mass of their WEEE, when they can paper over their corporate responsibility by claiming to be assisting councils (but not consumers) on their glossy websites.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:45 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...

They were real helpful at http://www.ggppss.com
I Would have purchased one a year ago If I knew they had them.


8:19 pm  

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