The WEEE Directive Is Great! Oh, Wait, What Is It Again?

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Peter Judge

Readers like the EU’s waste-reducing WEEE Directive, says Peter Judge. But they don’t know what it is

The updated European Union WEEE Directive, which aims to reduce the amount of e-waste discarded by EU citizens and organisations, is great news, according to TechWeekEurope readers. Except that a third of you don’t know what the WEEE Directive is.

E-waste is a big problem, as obsolete electronic goods go into the trash and end up on landfill. This is a waste of the rare elements the equipment contains, and it also damages the environment – and harms people. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive was written in 1996 and became law in 2003, in a bid to reduce that harm.

WEEE shall not be moved

The WEEE directive sets targets for how much e-waste should be captured and recycled by European nations, and is the reason why electronic goods carry the WEEE symbol – a crossed-out wheelie bin.

In theory, electronic items are monitored through the use of this symbol. Local authorities should provide WEEE recycling, and we should all be doing our bit to reduce the amount of WEEE that is just tossed aside.

However, the WEEE Directive has not really been as successful as had been hoped. In our survey, although a third of respondents (33 percent) thought the Directive was “great news” for the environment, a further third (32 percent) weren’t sure what is was – asking “What is the WEEE Directive again?”

Despite the WEEE Directive, agencies including Computer Aid demonstrated again and again that e-waste was falling through the net. This didn’t just mean it ended up in landfill sites. E-waste contains valuable elements, and unscrupulous merchants ship it abroad disguised as working systems, to toxic sites where workers, including children, risk their health reclaiming the materials.

The problem is in the implementation – and in the resources to make it happen. Inspectors, who could spot illegal WEEE exports and stop them, are few and far between. The WEEE directive and its implementations both show a blind spot when it comes to reuse of old kit  – a far better way to keep it out of waste stream, but one which vendors are understandably not keen on.

The  Coalition government disbanded the WEEE Advisory Board (WAB) in its “bonfire of the quangos”, but the team continued to meet voluntarily and produced a PC reuse standard.

The only problem is, the new WEEE Directive ignores those issues. It simply increases the targets, even though they are already proving impossible to police, and ignores the possibility of reuse, which could actually use consumer demand to pull usable items out of the waste stream.

By setting targets that won’t be met, the Directive becomes all but pointless – so I personally agree with the 19 percent of you who think it is too ambitious.

To the 17 percent who think the WEEE Directive places too big a demand on business, I say: “Get real”. It is true that the new Directive gives consumers the right to take their goods back to where they bought them for disposal. But there are two things to say about this.

Firstly, it is only reasonable. If it gets implemented, it will build in an awareness of the cost of disposing materials. Manufacturers will use them more carefully, and if they have to charge more to cover the costs, then that will reduce the too-fast turnover of consumer goods.

Secondly, though, it’s never going to happen in big quantities. The UK took years to implement the first WEEE Directive, and only did so in response to severe threats. This new Directive will take forever to have any effect at all, and given the extent to which we comply with the current Directive, I can’t see it inconveniencing businesses in the least.

Is your WEEE knowledge a matter of pride?  Try our Green Tech quiz!

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