Why We Are Pissed Off With WEEE

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The only way to reduce the tonnes of electronic waste we all produce is to re-use and repair equipment, says Peter Judge

In 2005, I saw the WEEE Man, a 3-tonne sculpture made by Paul Bonomini out of electronic trash, designed to highlight the European Union’s efforts to deal with the e-waste issue in its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

The European Union has voted to tighten up the directive but I think the general lack of progress in this area is leaving us all a bit pissed of – and I don’t see things getting any better. The WEEE man was refitted last year, but I think by now he should probably now be updated, to include a whole server and more network kit, based on the amount of cloud computing we all now use to support our social networking habits.

Who cares about e-waste?

Most people ignore environmental issues as long as they can, or only focus on “green” subjects where they will actually benefit.

So Green IT events generally concentrate on moves to reduce energy use – often by replacing rackfuls of servers – because reducing energy cuts costs, and the user’s bottom line benefits along with his green conscience.

By contrast, the proper disposal of e-waste actually costs more money than the alternatives, which are to dump old electronics in landfill, or else to use a low-cost shipper to remove it to developing countries where it will be broken down at great cost to the environment.

It is no wonder then, that the world has always dragged its feet. The WEEE directive update has been postponed repeatedly, but how has the original directive fared? It was passed in 2003, but Britain only enacted it in 2007, after threats of legal action by the European Union. Since then, the UK has supposedly tightened up its implementation of the regulations in 2009, after delaying it for as long as possible, claiming it would be bad for business.

On the ground, of course, almost nothing has happened. Consumers are far more likely to dump electronic goods in the normal waste stream, retailers are not being made to provide the kind of recycling facilities they should, and businesses seem to be able to get away with shipping their waste away illegally to the developing world.

This is happening because the will is not there. Recycling  bodies such as the WEEE Advisory Body proved soft targets in last years “Bonfire of the Quangos“, but in fact, an acute shortage of inspectors has made it very easy for illegal dumpers to get through.

In the end, nothing will be done until business users and consumers actually pay for the full environmental impact of what they buy – and this is rarely the case at the moment.

But there are plenty of steps to take towards reducing the amount of electronic waste we dump. WEEE should be one of them – and who knows, maybe it will start to have a real and visible effect soon. And who know, as bad as things are, maybe they would be even worse without it.

As well as this, though, we should also be actively promoting re-use. There is a standard for computer reuse in the works, and there is even a possibility that there could be a “target” for re-use in the eventual replacement for the WEEE directive – although an optional “target” in a directive which everyone does their best to ignore clearly won’t make much difference in itself.

Some are making efforts to change the economics of repair, so users will have equipment mended instead of throwing it away. Comtek, which operates IT repair centres, attempted to get the last government to scrap VAT on computer repairs.

That didn’t fly, but the company has a broader campaign this year, based on the Three R’s  – Re-Use, Repair and Reduce, which will launch at the House of Commons in March. While we don’t think we can expect much practical political backing, the campaign is definitely on the right track.

I’d like to see it succeed, enough to prompt a reduction in the WEEE Man’s massive 3-tonne weight.

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