For a while, the implementation date for the new Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regime seemed as though it would never arrive. The Government's successive announcements of delays in enforcing the new requirements - the most recent put implementation back to June 2006 - have given businesses that produce, sell, use or recycle anything that runs off mains electricity or batteries extra time to ensure they do not fall foul of the complicated rules. But the deadline fast approaches and some aspects of the obligations for business are only now becoming clear.
It is difficult to argue with the aim of WEEE legislation. The UK disposes of about one million tonnes of waste electrical equipment a year and the total is rising annually by 80,000 tonnes. The picture is similar in most EU countries, so action is long overdue to divert this waste stream from landfill and ensure most of it is recycled and recovered.
The WEEE Directive follows the EU producer responsibility principle which places the burden of paying for the collection, sorting and recovery of waste squarely on the shoulders of the people who make the goods in the first place. This means that the biggest effect of the new regime will be felt by the equipment manufacturers and importers plus any retailers of own-brand electricals.
But however small their market share, these firms will have to register with the authorities, supply annual sales data on the weight of equipment sold and help fund the collection, treatment and recycling of WEEE. They will also have to re-engineer their goods to comply with the linked Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which will largely ban the use of selected hazardous materials including heavy metals such as lead and mercury, and toxic brominated flame retardants found in electronic goods.
Producers will be able to operate a closed-loop system where they track the goods they sell and collect them at the end of their lives, but most are likely to go for the easier option of funding one of the likely national compliance schemes. Companies that fail to register risk fines or, in the worst case, will have their products taken off the market. The European Commission estimates the cost of the new rules to UK firms at between £217m and £455m.
But the rules will also place extra responsibilities on all businesses for electrical and electronic goods on a daily basis. Companies will have to arrange for any equipment they bought before August 13 2005 - from pocket calculators through PCs to drinks vending machines - to be collected separately for treatment, recovery and reuse or recycling to the standards set by the directive.
The new rules on disposal of hazardous waste add a further complication. Recyclers who handle WEEE will also need new permits and will have to prove they conform to rules on treatment and recycling specific levels of materials for different categories of equipment - recovery rates of 80% have to be achieved for large appliances, for instance.
The UK, in common with most EU countries, missed the August 2005 deadline for bringing in the WEEE requirements because the regulations to implement the directive were not completed in time and the national infrastructure for collecting waste equipment from consumers is still on the drawing board.
Over the next eight months, the Government, manufacturers and major retailers will be rushing to register producer compliance schemes and set up the UK-wide network of WEEE collection facilities. The