Electrical goods are still not being disposed of despite tough EU rules.
Going 'green' has become a legal obligation rather than a choice for electricals manufacturers in the wake of tough new European legislation. The WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) directive was introduced early in 2007, but a lack of enforcement of the rules is allowing some companies off the hook.
The directive has also raised concern that some organisations within the recycling chain are not playing their part, with the result that e-waste is dumped in Asia and Africa.
WEEE covers any business that manufactures or imports electrical and electronic equipment, as well as retailers and distributors. The companies are legally responsible for the costs of collection, treatment and recycling - a principle known as 'individual producer responsibility', or IPR.
A Waste Reduction report for the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published in August has raised concerns about the effectiveness of WEEE. Compiled by the ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS) at Cardiff University, the report states that many EU countries, including the UK, have failed fully to introduce IPR into national law.
In addition, Tony Pedrotti, director of the Sustainable Development and Regulation Directorate at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), told the researchers that, even though some countries had put IPR onto their statute books, none of them had fully implemented it.
Recycling collection volumes are growing, but some operators believe that not all WEEE materials, especially plastics, are being processed responsibly. Roger Morton, commercial director of Axion Recycling in the UK, is concerned that much of the plastic from electronic equipment is not being properly recycled.
"We know that a large volume of TV and [computer] monitor plastic is being exported with no separation of the plastic fraction [content] that contains brominated flame retardents, as required by the WEEE directive," he says. "From the compliance figures published so far it is hard to believe that the majority of the non-metallic fraction from small domestic appliances in the UK is being recycled [in this way].
"We know the quantities we are processing in our plant, and we have a good idea of the capacity of the other companies treating non-metallics from small domestic appliances in the UK, and these add up to much less than the total non-metallics that must be arising from the total small WEEE that is being disposed of.
"The balance must therefore be either land-filled or exported. From our knowledge of the composition of mixed small WEEE and the capability of processors outside the UK, it would be very difficult to export this material responsibly."
Computer Aid, the British charity, has also highlighted this problem, recently launching a petition calling for the UK government to provide resources to properly police the directive.
"Newspaper exposés and reports from both Greenpeace and Consumers International clearly demonstrate the extent of the e-waste problem, and serve to highlight the limitations of the current legislative framework for e-waste," says Louise Richards, Computer Aid chief executive.
She adds: "According to Consumers International, in Nigeria alone more than half a million second-hand PCs arrive in Lagos every month, yet only one in four works. The [UK] Environment Agency must be provided with the resources to police e-waste, prosecute anyone involved in a supply chain that results in the dumping of e-waste and remove licences from organisations in breach of the WEEE legislation."
But Adrian Harding of the Environment Agency says: "Our initial focus was to make businesses aware of the new regulations and to help those that needed to register to do so. We're actively looking for unregistered produces and will take appropriate enforcement action against those that seek to evade their responsibilities.
"The WEEE system is already bringing benefits for the environment - better treatment, less waste to landfill and more recycling. However, BERR is working closely with the [new] WEEE Advisory Body, enforcement authorities, producers, distributors, local authorities and other interested groups to review the UK WEEE system, to improve it still further."
Large manufacturers and retailers are well able to report on their full compliance with WEEE. However, they also concede that teething problems have existed. Kirstie McIntyre, environmental compliance manager for PC maker Hewlett-Packard in the UK and Ireland, says: "There has been a settling-in process and specific issues are still being worked through, in particular issues with compliance schemes [that we use] which are under-collecting. However, from a corporate perspective these issues have not affected companies like us."
But she adds: "There are increasing levels of complexity within environmental legislation, and companies like HP who operate in more than one country in Europe have this challenge to face, as each implements its own environment laws and different procedures."
SMEs and WEEE
Larger organisations have the resources to set up compliance departments and recycling schemes, but the directive can be tough on smaller companies, according to Cerys Ponting, a research associate at BRASS.
"Smaller firms find these issues time-consuming, and often difficult to understand and implement - although this can be alleviated if they are a member of a trade association, which can provide them with appropriate information for their industry," she says.
"Large companies do find WEEE a difficult area, though, especially if they are multinationals and may need to register differently in all EU25 countries."
Indeed, there are many schemes companies can use to comply with the directive, although these may be costly and time-consuming. However, most of the schemes offer reduced rates or more simplistic joining criteria to smaller companies. Many companies involved in the recycling process do believe, however, that the directive could be made simpler and clearer.
"Obligations are realistic, but could do with being simplified to make compliance easier and more focused on maximising recycling, ensuring the use of the best techniques available," says Simon Hill, commercial manager, Wincanton.
He adds: "Limited enforcement of the regulations has led to some material being withheld from the system, potentially ending up being exported overseas under the guise of 'reuse'.
"Systems for B2B [business-to-business] compliance are also fairly ambiguous, and as such, very little B2B WEEE is being treated to the correct standards."
It's clear that the majority of companies across the manufacturing and retail industries are working towards complying with WEEE wherever possible. But concern remains over the policing of the directive and the full disposal of waste.
Improvements to the directive could be forthcoming, however, following a conference in October involving officials from the European Commission and senior representatives of the electronics industry. With calls for change coming from Parliament, charities and companies, WEEE could well be reformed. Businesses keen to demonstrate green credentials are hoping that future changes to the directive will make this a much simpler task.