WEEE Shall Not Be Moved!


Action on e-waste will be driven by those that care, in spite of the watering down of the EU’s directive on WEEE, says Peter Judge

Electronic waste has always been the less-popular side of so-called Green IT. Everyone is happy to get behind the idea of saving electricity in the data centre and on desktops – it’s also saving money. But when it comes do cleaning up after ourselves, well, that involves work and is likely to cost.

Like so many other things, the real drivers are in the community of people concerned about the issue, though strong regulations are a nice-to-have. Which is why we are disappointed with the watering down of the EU’s directive on WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment).

The current directive has done little to alter the amount of IT junk that is tossed into landfill, or shipped to toxic disposal sites in the developing world, and now, by reducing the target for the amount of European electronics that will be recycled, the directive is likely to flounder further.

Voluntary and unenforceable

The EU Parliament approved a target of recycling 85 percent of the WEEE produced in Europe, but the new draft directive only sets a target of 45 percent. That won’t come into force for four years – and the use of the word “target” here gives a flavour of the provisional and unenforceable nature of the Directive.

If there is a ray of hope it is the fact that recyclers will continue – somehow – whatever the level of government support.

The UK’s WEEE Advisory Board was abolished by the government in a typically futile gesture (the board’s budget was of the order of thousands of pounds). Despite this, the group continued, and has produced a standard for the reuse of computer equipment – PAS 141.

Now, it may seem inconsistent to be sceptical of one directive with a silly name (WEEE) and welcome a formal specification whose name is a number. But we are talking here of two different kinds of bureaucracy.

The EU is trying to push down from on high, without any real idea of what its targets mean in practice, or how they might be implemented, only a general feeling that something “should be done” by those other people who aren’t bureaucrats.

Meanwhile, the re-use standard has come up from the grass-roots, created by people who make it their business to re-use and repurpose old equipment.

An uphill struggle

PAS 141 is not without critics, of course. Some say it will make it harder to reuse PCs, as the test will cost money to apply. Others simply believe that technology moves on so fast that anyone trying to promote the use of older hardware will have an uphill struggle.

For instance, Microsoft’s IE9 won’t run on PCs that only have Windows XP. The company says this is to give the best experience, but it’s also part of its ongoing – and anti-environmental – campaign to kill off a product which many people feel is still good enough for them.

We think, that re-using old desktop kit is something any organisation should consider, especially in days when many people are storing and processing much less on their office PC or laptop using the cloud and desktop virtualisation.

We welcome the new WEEE directive when it is finally finished, and however strong its targets are, we wish it support, and hope it has teeth. But we also welcome the measures emerging from companies doing the real work, and suggest that IT managers should do what they can to increase tech re-use and recycling.

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