Saturday, November 28, 2009


What a waste
By Jennifer Rankin
26.11.2009 / 04:45 CET
A look at what is being done to reduce the amount of electronic waste.

The EU directives on the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) and on restricting the hazardous substances (RoHS) from which they are made are rarely to be found in grand speeches or declarations. Neither law got a mention in José Manuel Barroso's list of priorities for his second term as European Commission president. But these directives – which will be debated in the European Parliament next week (1 December) – are among those unsung laws that have a major impact on businesses and consumers in Europe and beyond.

The laws are intended to ensure that Europe's unwanted toasters, tumble dryers and fridges do not damage the environment or human health by rotting in rubbish dumps. Every year European consumers buy around 9.3 million tonnes of new electrical gadgets. The consequence is Europe's fastest-growing type of waste.

The two laws came into force in 2004, and are now due for a routine update. But they have already had a difficult life. The Commission's red-tape snippers earmarked the WEEE directive as a candidate for simplification. And since the revision process got under way last year, opinions have become sharply divided over how these laws should evolve.

European Voice spoke to the two MEPs who will be guiding the debates in the Parliament. Although their political backgrounds vary, two common themes stand out. Both MEPs will press for more ambitious proposals than envisaged by the Commission and many national governments. Second, neither of these draft directives will be agreed quickly. Neither MEP is going for a quick agreement at first-reading, to the frustration of Sweden's EU presidency. “I wouldn't envisage that. There is a lot to debate,” says Jill Evans, a UK Green MEP who is drafting the Parliament's position on RoHS.

“I prefer quality over time,” says Karl-Heinz Florenz, a centre-right (EPP) German MEP, who thinks the Parliament has had too many quick agreements recently, citing the climate and energy package as one example.

The European directive on recycling electronic waste was a landmark for EU environmental law, but remains little loved in member states. In 2008 the Commission found that only a third of electronic waste was being treated in line with the law, with the rest going to landfill or being ineffectively treated outside the EU.

Karl-Heinz Florenz, who was the lead MEP when the original directive went through the Parliament, rejoices at “the birth of the European WEEE baby”, but he fears that its “education has not been so successful”. If the EU does not take its errant child in hand, Florenz expects that there will be around 4.3 million tonnes of electronic waste by 2020, with severe consequences for the environment.

For Florenz, one of the main problems is that the directive takes too much of a ‘one size fits all' approach. The law obliges countries to recycle four kilograms of waste per citizen each year. Some countries are exceeding this target, while others lag far below it. Austria recycles 16 kilograms of electronic waste per citizen per year, while Italy manages less than one kilogram, says Florenz. This leaves manufacturers, who are responsible for waste collection, facing a big disparity in costs.
Ambitious targets

The Commission would like to stretch the best and worst performers. Under the new proposal, countries would be obliged to recycle waste equivalent to 65% of the average weight of new goods put on the market over the preceding two years. Florenz approves of this approach, but favours a more ambitious starting point than the currently proposed 2016 deadline. He favours an interim target of 50% or 55% by 2013.

The MEP is a strong supporter of the directive's guiding principle that producers should be responsible for recycling and disposal – a contentious point for manufacturers, who want to share the burden with local government. But Florenz counters that “the company is the only one who has an influence on the design process”.

He adds: “The producers should have a high responsibility and I will underline this, I will strengthen it.” For instance, he says that a fridge manufacturer would be more likely to invest in making its products from easily recyclable materials if it had to take that product back one day for recycling. Producer responsibility “is not a punishment, it is a design economy”, he says.

But the MEP also wants to make life easier for companies, especially small businesses. He wants to see a single European point where companies can register. Under current rules, one model of hairdryer sold throughout the EU may have to be registered 27 times, which Florenz estimates costs business €66 million in ‘excess' registration fees every year. This point is proving controversial among member states. The MEP suspects that they are keen to keep the revenue source.

For Florenz, this law is not the end of the story. Ultimately, Florenz would like to see worldwide regulation to counter illegal waste shipments. He is increasingly concerned that a lot of valuable scrap is being sent to China, where it is inappropriately treated. “We are not only losing valuable raw materials, but this equipment is disposed of in a catastrophic way for human beings and the environment.”
Divisions over which hazardous substances need to be on the banned list

The RoHS law is best known for its ban on lead and other chemical nasties from use in electrical and electronic equipment. But while the original law phased out four heavy metals and two brominated flame retardants, the Commission sees this revision more as a tidying-up exercise, rather than a chance to add to the list.

For Jill Evans, who sits in the Greens/ European Free Alliance group, this is a mistake. The revision is “an excellent opportunity not just to stand still but to expand the list,” she says. She would like to add two halogenated flame retardants and PVC to the list.

Evans thinks that the “best” manufacturers are already in tune with this move. “Big companies like Apple and Sony Ericsson have not just complied with RoHS but have gone beyond it. They predicted that the legislation would go further and that PVC and brominated flame retardants would come under the scope of RoHS, so they have decided to go ahead and phase out [these chemicals] themselves.”

Other industry groups are more cautious. For instance, the European engineering industries association, Orgalime, is worried that the Commission's current proposal for revising RoHS creates unnecessary bureaucracy and overlaps with other laws, notably the REACH chemicals regulation.

Evans responds: “RoHS was specifically designed to stand alone. PVC and flame retardants are not covered by REACH. It has quite a different purpose.” She adds that REACH is still in its infancy, so RoHS has to continue operating on its own terms.

One of the grey areas still to be resolved by the Council of Ministers and the Parliament is the scope of the regulation. Should a singing birthday card or a talking toy (ie, goods with an electronic component) fall under the scope of the law? Such questions have divided the Council. But Evans is clear on this point: “The problem with enforcement [so far] was uncertainty over the scope of legislation. We want to see everything covered unless it is specifically exempted.”

The MEP also stresses that exemptions should not automatically be set for four years, as shorter time periods may suffice for manufacturers to come up with alternative chemicals.

“My aim is to ensure that we have the strongest legal policy on restrictions to ensure that there are no effects on health and environment, and to ensure that companies can comply and will comply.”

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