E-waste laws make manufacturers responsible for recycling
A much-delayed law that makes British producers and importers of electronic goods responsible for the recycling of their products has come into force.
The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive requires 4kg of "e-waste" to be recycled per person.
Manufacturers have to fund recycling schemes, while retailers must offer take-back services to customers.
The legislation was supposed to be operational by August 2005 but was delayed by "major difficulties".
E-waste, which includes PCs, games consoles, microwaves and washing machines, is the fastest-growing form of rubbish in the European Union.
The UK produces an estimated 1.2m tonnes of e-waste each year, most of which has been ending up in landfill sites.
Beyond the shelf
"I think this is an absolutely great piece of legislation," said Jonathan Wright, a senior supply chain executive for Accenture, the management consultancy.
"In the past, all that companies focused on was getting products made and getting them out to customers," he explained.
"Now, organisations are having to think about what is going to happen after the product has been sold."
The WEEE directive entered the statute book at the beginning of the year, but full producer responsibility was delayed until 1 July.
Under the legislation, retailers selling electrical goods are obliged to offer customers a free in-store take-back service on a "like for like" basis, or help fund the expansion of a network of WEEE collection points.
Comet, one of the UK's largest electrical retailers, is among the companies funding the upgrading of local authority-run recycling facilities.
The company's managing director, Hugh Harvey, welcomed the belated introduction of the law.
"We believe this legislation is a really positive initiative which will make it much easier for consumers to recycle their electrical waste," he said.
The directive has also required manufacturers to join one of 37 "Producer Compliance Schemes" operating in the UK.
The schemes, which are monitored by the Environment Agency, collect and recycle the e-waste on behalf of the companies.
"The amount we are responsible for is calculated by looking at the amount we sell," explained HP's takeback compliance manager, Kirstie McIntyre.
"We report to our compliance scheme, who in turn reports to the Environment Agency on our behalf.
"We tell them how much IT we sold to consumers and business customers last year; the Environment Agency then adds up all the sales by the major manufacturers and works out percentage responsibility for each company."
However, Mrs McIntyre voiced concern that the EU directive did not offer the same incentives as WEEE legislation in Japan.
"What they have done in Japan is introduce a more individual producers' responsibility approach," she said.
"Instead of HP being responsible for any old IT and recycling it, we are only responsible for HP equipment."
This had a number of additional environmental benefits, she added.
"Most of the environmental impact in complex manufactured goods is decided at the design stage.
"If we design our products to be more recyclable at the end-of-life stage, we not only reap the economic benefits but also the design decisions that we have made.
"Why should we make [components] easier to remove when we are getting everybody else's laptop back.
"At the end of the day, we have shareholders and we have to make a very strong business case for any changes that we make.
"At the moment, we do have design changes that we can make, but we cannot make the business case stack up because we do not get enough of our own products back."
The WEEE Directive is scheduled to be reviewed in 2008, five years after the EU first agreed to implement legislation to tackle the growing problem of e-waste ending up in landfill sites.