End of life is in sight

Recycling was back in the news last week with reports of European Commission proposals to force manufacturers to use recycled materials. However, plans are already well advanced to institute recycling of used electronic equipment. A European draft directive would put sole responsibility for recovery of waste electrical and electronic equipment on manufacturers and importers. It […]

Recycling was back in the news last week with reports of European Commission proposals to force manufacturers to use recycled materials.

However, plans are already well advanced to institute recycling of used electronic equipment. A European draft directive would put sole responsibility for recovery of waste electrical and electronic equipment on manufacturers and importers. It is expected to be adopted by the Council of Ministers within two years and could end up on the UK statute book as early as 2002.

Claire Snow, director of the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (Icer), says companies should be planning for it now, as it is expected to prove costly for industry, both in administration and recycling requirements.

The directive moves on from the commission’s working paper produced last October by making the ‘producer’ manufacturer or importer exclusively responsible for recycling. Manufacturers would not physically have to take equipment back, but would have to pay for its collection, reuse or recycling.

Although a burden on industry, this approach would be a simpler system than the cumbersome and costly packaging waste regulations.

Two key targets are set, for collection and recycling, varying from 40% up to 90% for 11 categories of equipment.

The main objectives are to cut the amount of hazardous substances used in manufacturing equipment; to promote design which takes account of end-of-life considerations; and to encourage use of recycled material in new products.

Hazardous substances such as lead, mercury and cadmium will have to be phased out (by an undecided date). CFCs, certain fluids and components such as cathode ray tubes, and components containing asbestos, will have to be removed before recovery or disposal of electrical equipment.

End-of-life design is aimed at minimising the environmental impact of equipment when it becomes redundant and making it easier to recycle. Producers would be required to use common components and to make dismantling manuals available.

The commission’s directive follows a study confirming that equipment recycling is technically feasible and environmentally beneficial.

However, there can be difficulties. The potential for recycling varies widely and depends on factors such as the age of a product, the degree of contamination and how it is collected.

A trial for re-using or recycling domestic electronic equipment carried out by two Icer members, Domestic & General and Intex, revealed that domestic radio, TV and hi-fi equipment had little potential for repair and reuse, but recycling was viable for other types of equipment such as IT and telecoms.

Reactions to the directive have been mixed, with some companies anxious about the cost burden. The domestic appliance and radio and TV sectors are particularly concerned, as are producers of small products such as calculators, where recycling costs could outweigh environmental benefits. Icer and some trade associations are trying to get the commission to limit the directive’s scope to sectors which can yield environmental benefits.

But some firms are taking the directive in their stride. BT ‘broadly welcomes’ its aims, although it is not entirely happy about some areas, such as the collection targets.

BT already takes back lots of telephones for recycling and reuse, says environment manager Kelvin Currie, and makes a profit on this. To meet the commission’s requirements, the company only expects to have to extend this from rental to purchased phones and possibly tighten up its administration.

Telecom and IT manufacturer Northern Telecom (Nortel) also has few qualms about the directive. It has been looking for some time at productive recovery in the US and established a life cycle management team in Europe two years ago.

Nortel says the directive ‘is not necessarily a cost burden but a great opportunity to save money by redesigning processes and working with customers’. Customer workshops on environmental issues (see box) have already been launched.