Critics Claim WEEE Failed to Deliver in First Year in U.K.

Critics Claim WEEE Failed to Deliver in First Year in U.K.

A year on from the implementation of theWaste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive in the U.K., critics claim that a number of compliance schemes are on the brink of failure and that many organizations are failing to embrace initiatives designed to promote re-use of IT equipment.


The WEEE directive entered U.K. law last July with the aim of minimizing the impact of electrical and electronic goods on the environment by increasing re-use and recycling and reducing the amount of WEEE going to landfill.

The legislation follows the "polluter pays" principle, whereby IT manufacturers take on environmental disposal responsibilities for e-waste, either themselves or by signing up with a government-approved waste-handling firm, also known as a compliance scheme. The manufacturers have a duty to provide a free collection service for customers so they can easily return their equipment at end of life.

According to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), 40 compliance schemes now exist. But Jon Godfrey of IT disposal services firm Lifecycle Services, which was recently acquired by the global Sims Group, insisted many of these schemes were failing.

"The compliance schemes are meant to supply the government with a breakdown of the equipment they recycle so it can attribute value to the data they collect," he said. "But most have not submitted the data, defeating the point of the regulation."

This absence of recycling data has resulted in uncertainty over how much manufacturers should be paying to cover the cost of recycling, according to Godfrey, who explained that it would be unfair to ask a manufacturer to pay extra to fund recycling programs as a result of a compliance scheme's failure to provide the government with accurate data.

The government's response to schemes reporting failures also remains unclear, with a BERR spokeswoman stating that non-compliance with WEEE will be considered on "a case-by-case basis."

Godfrey added that a relatively small number of schemes were beginning to dominate the market, pointing to two schemes that had successfully passed the first WEEE compliance period: Valpak and DHL. He said that these larger schemes tend to be more reliable because "they have to work harder" to satisfy high-profile clients such as Dell and HP. However, he warned that in contrast number of smaller compliance schemes appeared to have been set up to generate a quick income and were at risk of collapse.

The legislation is also dogged by "grey areas," according to James Taylor of law firmSimmons and Simmons, who said that many importers remain unaware of their WEEE obligations. He explained that under the directive, producers need to clearly mark WEEE-compliant products. However, if a manufacturer imports from outside Europe, the importer needs to take on the responsibility for labeling -- a fact he claimed many importers were unaware of.

Another disputed area is the extent to which local councils are obliged to dispose of waste from institutions such as schools, hospitals and prisons. A Local Government Association (LGA) spokeswoman said the definition of what constitutes the household waste which councils are responsible for needs to be urgently clarified, especially since the Landfill tax has caused more schools, hospitals and prisons to turn from disposing of waste through the private sector to approaching councils to take on the responsibility.

Paul Bettison, chairman of the LGA Environment Board, has called for the regulation to be amended because if the definition is not changed, such institutions would have less incentive to cut down on their waste production.

Critics also claimed that the legislation is not doing enough to promote re-use of computers, a practice that advocates claim limits a PC's environmental impact by extending its useful life.

Anja French from Computer Aid International, a charity that distributes computers to projects in the developing world, said the organization had seen a significant rise in businesses signing up to donate IT equipment since the implementation of WEEE. But she argued that the government should look to stimulate higher levels of donation by setting re-use targets. Godfrey agreed WEEE was a "wasted opportunity" in this respect.

French also estimated up to 10 per cent of the firms approaching Computer Aid, particularly the smaller organizations, had previously been scrapping IT equipment. "The government has been slow in educating managers of the directive, " she explained.

A recent Dell survey confirmed many organizations are still unaware of the WEEE directive. A survey of 100 members of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) found that 22 per cent did not know whether the WEEE directive applied to their business or not. Furthermore, while 40 per cent of organizations recycled IT kit though a third-party organization, some admitted to alternative disposal methods, such as storing IT equipment indefinitely or even burning it.

Smaller businesses also tend to lack formal procedures that prevent staff taking computers home, said Godfrey, who claimed that such practices only lead to higher costs to the public as the disposal of household WEEE is funded by the government. "It is a huge mistake for a chief information officer to allow staff to take products home," he argued.

Moreover, recent reports also show that consumers remain far behind businesses in their awareness of the environmental implications of e-waste. New research from electrical retailer Comet revealed 17 per cent of households do not recycle electrical items at all, and while 67 per cent of consumers claim to be aware of the WEEE directive the company insisted that consumers are not recycling electrical goods with the same resolve as other household items.

However, BERR defended WEEE's record, claiming that the first compliance period had always been intended to develop the necessary infrastructure and achieve E.U. collection targets, while in the second compliance period, it will work to fine tune the process and "increase consumer awareness on how to dispose of electronic waste."

It added that the first year had been successful, insisting that the U.K. had exceeded the E.U.'s e-waste collection target of 4kg per capita per year and currently has a collection rate of about 6kg per capita per year. Fly-tipping has also shown a downward trend since producer responsibility was first introduced, the department said.