Solving E-Waste Will Take More Than A New WEEE Directive

Peter Judge

Other rules have to change if we are going to re-use and recycle our e-waste properly, says Peter Judge

Are you ready for the new WEEE directive? In 18 months, new rules will start to require you to recycle more of your electronic waste – and require vendors to help you do it.

The new directive comes 10 years after the European Union’s first WEEE directive told us where to put our Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE). In those 10 years there has been some progress, but far too much  electronic waste still goes into landfill, or abroad where it is processed in hazardous conditions.

Will WEEE targets make a difference?

The new directive, which must be implemented in EU member states by next 15 February, gives everyone the right to take back small electrical devices to the shop to be recycled.

It also sets targets. In three years, it wants 75 percent of e-waste to be recovered and 65 percent of it recycled. This rises to 85 percent recovery in 2020.

But how useful are these targets? They seem to be set in a vacuum, without any relation to other issues, and without those connections, the Directive is of limited use to the people who are working to prevent toxic or ugly dumping of e-waste.

For instance, Askar Sheibani has kept a lot of network equipment out of landfill. His company Comtek takes second-hand network equipment, refurbishes it and sells it with a guarantee. But what he needs is not a new set of targets, but some rules which would help him fight his corner when his business comes under fire.

When the big network companies sell an upgrade, they don’t like it if the old equipment stays in use somewhere else. They think that reduces their sales (even if the kit is picked up by those who couldn’t afford the new stuff). So they use every angle they can to stop companies like Comtek selling the kit they made second-hand, even if it still works perfectly.

Sheibani wants to see  other laws adapted so vendors can’t use them to shut down second-hand equipment sales. “Legislation such as The European Trademark law could, for instance, cause green-thinkers to run into trouble as they set about putting the directive into practice across the EU,” he said.

Meanwhile, Computer Aid International is worried about the international angle. The charity sends computers abroad for use in the developing world, and is concerned about the way waste equipment is disposed of in those countries.

At one time the concern was all about illegal shipments of electronics, sent to developing nations to be broken down for chemicals, often in toxic conditions. Now the problem is worse, because those toxic recycling sites still exist, but they have an increased flow of local junk to deal with as well.


“As demand for IT in the developing world is growing exponentially, serious questions need to be asked about what happens when the equipment inevitably becomes waste in these countries,” says Computer Aid International chief executive Tom Davis.

The WEEE Directive’s idea is to put the responsibility onto the producer of the goods, but this Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) only applies within the EU. Computer Aid has a report out that suggests it should be extended to the developing world, though Davis acknowledges this may not be easy.

“This report recognises that, when developing Extended Producer Responsibility systems, it is vital that local conditions be acknowledged and catered for. It is not a question of simply replicating systems that work in the EU or US.”

Trade is international, and the vast majority of our electronic goods come from abroad, while many return there later in their life. We need an international scheme that is realistic about the motives of vendors, and makes sure that links to other legislation here and abroad don’t sabotage the good ideas of the Directive.

“In a nutshell, the WEEE directive has great intention at its core, but without an effective way to implement it, all that good intention is simply wasted,” says Sheibani.

What do you think of the updated EU WEEE Directive's targets for reclaiming electronic waste?

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