European parliamentarians and EU member states are struggling to find a common position on electronic waste recycling.
They will meet again on 20 December in a last-ditch bid to reach a compromise before the European Parliament’s scheduled second-reading plenary vote in January.
If no decision is reached by then, the only hope for the proposed revision of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive will be the conciliation procedure where a committee of Council and Parliament representatives will have to finalise a text in just six weeks, or the three-year-old proposal will be withdrawn.
The WEEE Directive came into force in 2003 and had some impact on rates of collection and recycling but the size of the waste stream continued to increase. In 2008 the European Commission proposed revisions to the directive, which have since been subject to formal consultation and discussion.
A source close to the negotiations told E&T that there is a significant disagreement between the UK position and the major economies on the continent. “There is still disagreement over the definition of what is meant by a ‘producer’ of electronic equipment. It’s a sensitive issue since producers are responsible for funding recovery of the equipment. The UK would prefer a pan-European EU definition – proposed by MEPs, but France and Germany favour each member state defining the term – supported by the Council of Ministers. It’s going to be difficult to find a compromise.”
The European Parliament is suggesting a mandatory in-store take-back for all small-volume WEEE. This would mean that retailers would be obliged to take back small items, free of charge, even if the customer does not buy a new appliance. Under the current system retailers only have to take back an old appliance only when it corresponds to the type of product they sell, and only if the consumer buys a new one.
Under the new proposal, however, the small WEEE that the retailer would be obliged to take back is not necessarily related to the equipment sold.
Another controversial issue is when the new target should come into effect, and whether some of the less developed economies in the East and the South should be granted a two-year delay. The Commission and the Parliament support a start date of 2016, but member states want a general delay until 2020.
Furthermore, the European Parliament recently voted to modify the method for calculating waste and also imposed an enhanced requirement for collecting 85 per cent of electronic waste generated in the current year. MEPs claim that this will generate the same result as the 65 per cent limit under the original calculation, but with less burden on small producers.
Gary Nevison, head of legislation at Farnell, an electronic components distribution company, believes that the current legislation needs to be updated, as much WEEE is being illegally exported as working devices to overcome exporting restrictions on waste.
“Money earned from reclaiming valuable materials can earn an individual between $2 and $5 per day. But the cost of burning copper wires to remove coatings, CRT monitors smashed, circuit boards dipped into acid baths is at best deteriorating health and at worst, fatalities – not to mention the effect on the local environment,” says Nevison.
Whereas much WEEE is currently being transported illegally to India and China, these countries are putting in measures to combat the problem.
Farnell itself has set up several initiatives in India. Nevison explained that the company is working with Dr Thuppil Venkatesh, an advisor to the National Referral Centre for Lead Poisoning in India (NRCLPI) to create awareness. Dr Venkatesh leads an initiative to train teachers who educate young people on the dangers of unsafe recycling and also supplies respiratory masks to the 5 million estimated workers in the recycling industry in India.
However, the exporters are now moving their illegal trade from Asia to Africa. According to a report by MakeITFair, an EU-funded lobby group based in the Netherlands, around 600 containers of mostly obsolete second-hand electronics arrived in Ghana last year. The report claims that most of this ends up being burned at dump-sites. Much of the waste originates from the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Spain.
Thousands of people are working in the informal waste industry in Ghana. Children constitute around 40 per cent of the scrap workers at Agbogbloshie dump-site. Currently there is no e-waste legislation in Ghana, and the country has only one recycling facility with three workers, which cannot possibly manage all the incoming shipments as well as the domestically generated e-waste.
According to the report, whether the computers are functioning or obsolete is uncertain, but without recycling facilities they will, no matter what, end up at dumpsites.
However, some have argued that without proper recycling facilities, ultimately this is the same situation for all electrical and electronic equipment imported into the developing world, even new products.
A number of other green pressure groups, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are also lobbying hard, but the danger will be that the current process may not find an agreement and the current directive will lapse.