Green with worry

Could an environmentally correct EU recycling directive foisted on the electronics industry by the green lobby drive the multinationals out of the UK altogether?

The year 2001 may yet prove to be crunch time for electronics manufacturers, faced with the prospect of having to take back equipment at the end of its life for recycling. It is feared that if some of the proposals make it through to the final EU directive, multinationals will move manufacturing out of Europe.

Currently there is no resolution in sight to the long-running saga over the proposals, being considered by separate committees of the European Commission environment council and Euro MPs. The Federation of the Electronics Industry says some of the committee members have been unrealistic in their demands.

The debate echoes the protests of car manufacturers, who said the cost of a similar regulation requiring them to take back and recycle end-of-life vehicles, no matter how long ago they were made, would be too dear.

The commission has been debating the idea of a Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive since the mid-1990s, and numerous drafts have been produced. But in discussions between the various directorates-general last year, the proposal for a single directive turned into three:

A plan to end the use of lead in solder;

The main directive, now being considered by the two committees (as is the one covering solder);

A third, on design for recycling, which has not yet been drafted.

Evergreen representatives

FEI expert Dudley Ollis is worried that the calibre of some of the representatives that member states have sent to sit on the committee scrutinising the proposals for the commission are primarily environmentalists, not industry people.

‘The UK has sent a representative with an insight into industry,’ he says. The UK’s envoy is from the DTI, which has worked out a position on the directive with the DETR and Treasury.

‘But many of the other countries, particularly those with no electronics industry, have sent environmental specialists all trying to outdo each other,’ says Ollis. ‘They assume industry can pay.’ But, he explains, it can’t. in TV manufacture, profit margins can be as low as 1%. The big worry is that the new directive could be brought in more quickly than first proposed. Originally a five-year delay was planned to let firms prepare for the potentially huge volume of products for recycling.

‘Even the environment directorate-general recognised the need for five years to build up a fund to deal with the directive,’ Ollis says. ‘Suddenly some committee members seem to be suggesting the industry can bring it in straight away. If they do that, companies will go bankrupt, or manufacturing will leave Europe immediately.’

Industry is also worried about what exactly manufacturers may be called upon to recycle. Who will be responsible for the vast amount of old equipment made by companies which have gone bust or disappeared? It also wants the directive to be limited to large domestic appliances, computers and TVs in the first instance, since these form 90% of the waste stream.

Another concern is how the recycling scheme will be set up. Manufacturers want the directive to be introduced in such a way that they are not obliged to set up their own collection schemes from scratch. For business equipment they want to have scope for an agreement to be written into the contract between supplier and customer. And the industry is also pushing to scrap domestic appliances to be collected by local authorities and passed to manufacturers for recycling.

There is even more concern over the possibility of banning lead in solder. The only discussions in the committees have so far centred on reintegrating this proposal with the main directive. But the FEI argues that the whole proposal is unnecessary, and based on the fear that lead from solder in equipment dumped in landfill sites could leach into the water supply.

‘No-one has shown lead can get into the water by that route,’ says Ollis. ‘And the main directive will ban the dumping of electronic equipment in landfill sites. In any case, it’s easy to reclaim the solder from end-of-life equipment by heating it up.’ And if more proof were needed, the alternatives to solder such as tin and beryllium are potentially more toxic.

Will these proposals come through and if so when? France made finalising the directive a goal of its EU presidency, but the last meeting of the environment council committee in December ended without agreement. Though no official report was issued, problems remain in almost every area: targets; target dates; which products should be covered; how collection, treatment and recovery should be financed; the length of the delay before the directive comes into force; and responsibility for historical waste.

Unrealistic proposals

But it is also becoming clear that the countries with substantial electronics industries — the UK, France and Germany — were digging in against what they saw as unrealistic proposals from countries without such industries.

Whether industry or the green lobby will prevail will become clearer over the next few months. The parliamentary committee plans to finalise its position in a meeting at the end of next month, which would allow a first reading to take place in the March session of the European Parliament. The environment council committee is not planning to meet again until after the parliament’s first reading, when it must reach a ‘common position’ harmonising its view with that of the parliament.

A second and third reading with scope for further dissent or horse-trading between the parliament and commission will follow.