Commission tackles problem of electronic waste

The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

The European Commission has adopted a proposal for a Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and a proposal for a Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment.

The proposed Directives are designed to tackle the fast increasing waste stream of electrical and electronic equipment and complements European Union measures on landfill and incineration of waste. Increased recycling of electrical and electronic equipment, in accordance with the requirements of the proposal for a WEEE Directive, will limit the total quantity of waste going to final disposal.

Producers will be responsible for taking back and recycling electrical and electronic equipment.

This will provide incentives to design electrical and electronic equipment in an environmentally more efficient way, which takes waste management aspects fully into account.

Consumers will be able to return their equipment free of charge.

In order to prevent the generation of hazardous waste, the proposal for a Directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances requires the substitution of various heavy metals and brominated flame retardants in new electrical and electronic equipment from 1 January 2008 onwards.

Welcoming the adoption by the Commission of the draft Directive, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström declared: ‘This is a major step towards the objective of sustainable production and consumption. I am pleased that the Commission has been able to agree on a balanced initiative, which the Environment, consumers and industry all stand to gain from’. She added: ‘Due to the fast pace of technological innovation, electrical and electronic equipment constitute one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU. It is therefore particularly important to implement the key principles of EU waste management policy, especially the prevention and the recycling of waste, in this area.’

In order to reduce the amount of electrical and electronic waste disposed of in landfills and incinerators the proposed weee directive seeks to establish separate collection and recycling systems for such waste. It also implements the principle of producer responsibility to provide incentives for producers to take into account,already at the product design stage, the need to reduce the use of hazardous substances and to improve the recyclability of these products.

The weee directive, based on article 175 of the treaty, will address all electrical and electronic equipment used by consumers and currently not treated before going to incinerators or landfills . It also covers a wide range of professionally used electrical and electronic equipment, such as information technology (it) and telecommunication equipment, which is not sufficiently recycled today.

The waste stream of electrical and electronic equipment has been identified as one of the fastest growing waste streams in the european union constituting 4% of the municipal waste today, increasing by 16-28% every five years – three times as fast as the growth of average municipal waste. Furthermore, it is one of the largest known sources of heavy metals and organic pollutants in the municipal waste. With a view to the resource intensive production of electrical and electronic equipment, the requirement to recycle these wastes will lead to significant resource savings. Thus, the new proposal fulfils a key objective of the fifth environmental action programme – the reduction in wasteful consumption of natural resources and the prevention of pollution.

The directive on electronic waste complements ec legislation on waste disposal, including the directives on landfills and incineration of waste, and follows the example set by other waste stream specific directives, such as the recently adopted end-of-life vehicles directive. Given that today more than 90% of electronic waste ends up in disposal or shredding facilities without any pre-treatment, depollution and proper recycling of this waste constitute the main objectives of the proposal. Proper pre-treatment and recycling can, however, only be achieved through separate collection of electronic waste.

Accordingly, member states will have to organise this collection from private households. Producers will then take over the waste from designated collection facilities. From there the waste needs to be channelled to certified treatment facilities, where further treatment according to the standards set out in the directive can be ensured. The treatment standards contain minimum percentages for the recovery of this waste. These would come into force no later than 2006, and would range between 60 and 80%, depending on the product category.

In line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, producers need to organise and finance the treatment, recovery and disposal of waste. The entry into force of the financing obligation will be delayed by five years to minimise the impact on producers of the financing requirement regarding waste from products put on the market before entry into force of the legislation (‘historical waste’).

The proposed directive on the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, based on article 95 of the treaty, introduces a substitution requirement for those substances in electrical and electronic equipment, which pose the main environmental problems during disposal and recycling of such waste. This requirement will support ongoing efforts to substitute these substances by less harmful substances.

In line with the directive on end-of-life vehicles the targeted substances include the heavy metals, lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium. In addition, two types of brominated flame retardants, pbb and pbde, are required to be substituted by 1 January 2008. The substitution of pbb and pbde must not lead to a lowering of the fire safety standards. Accordingly, the directive provides for exemptions from the substitution requirement if such substitution is not possible.