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Opportunity knocks for WEEE sector

The Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) recast is upon us. It will come into force with formal publication in the Official Journal sometime in mid 2012 and each member state (MS) will then have 18 months to transpose it. So if all goes to plan, expect new regulations in the UK to be effective from 2014.

Before that, though, there will be a period of consultation within each MS on how it will be incorporated into national law. In terms of timings, we expect the first UK consultation around the end of 2012, and potentially a second consultation during 2013 if it is deemed necessary.

We now need to understand the implications for the sector. Some of the key items addressed within the Recast that will impact on the system are: scope, increased WEEE collection target, shipment of WEEE abroad, and reuse targets.

One of the current issues with the system, is the classification of what should be considered as WEEE. In order to improve clarity and bring more products into the system, the Recast therefore clearly defines what is classed as Electrical and Electronic Equipment (EEE), and hence, what is covered by the directive as WEEE. It moves to ‘open’ scope (although not until six years after coming into force). This means that all EEE will be covered, unless it is in a list of exclusions within Article 2 of the Recast. That means that, after the six years, the exclusions are:

  • Equipment designed to be sent into space
  • Large-scale stationary industrial tools
  • Large-scale fixed installations, except any equipment which is not specifically designed and installed as part of these installations
  • Means of transport for persons or goods, excluding electric two-wheel vehicles which are not type-approved
  • Non-road mobile machinery made available exclusively for professional use
  • Equipment specifically designed solely for the purposes of research and development that is only made available on a business-to-business basis
  • Medical devices and in vitro diagnostic medical devices, where such devices are expected to be infective prior to end of life, and active implantable medical devices

One of the main aims of the WEEE Directive always has been, and remains to be, avoiding the creation of WEEE in the first place, as this will ultimately minimise environmental impact. But of course, this is not always possible, so, where we cannot avoid creating WEEE, the directive addresses measures to increase collection, and to maximise reuse, recycling and recovery (of secondary materials).

In order to meet our targets and ensure that we are capturing as much WEEE as possible, we need to improve the efficiency of the current system. What this ultimately means is that the UK will need to ensure that all WEEE from all sources is captured and counted in the official system if the country is to hit the interim 45% target (compared to the average weight of EEE placed on the market over the three preceding years) and the new long term target set by the directive – which will either be 65% by weight based on the weight of EEE sold or 85% of WEEE generated.

The Recast says:

  • From now (when the Recast enters into force - presumably mid 2012) until 1 January four years after the year of entry into force (1 January 2016), the collection target will be either minimum 4kg per capita or the average kg per capita collected over the prior three years, whichever is larger. For the UK that might mean a target of 7kgs or more, depending on how this is interpreted
  • Four years after the year of entry into force (January 2016 onwards) this will change to a collection rate of 45% by weight, based on the average weight of EEE placed on the market in that Member Sate the prior three years
  • Looking ahead from four years (Jan 2016) to seven years (January 2019), the target gradually increases until it reaches the final target of either 65% based on EEE put on the market or 85% of WEEE generated, whichever is chosen

The WEEE-generated target is seen by many as a much better one, reflecting the state of maturity of each market and eliminating the one-size-fits-all approach to targets, which isn’t necessarily appropriate given that all MSs are at a different market maturity when it comes to purchasing EEE. The Commission will also evaluate methodology in the interim to calculate WEEE generated

In terms of meeting this target, what we need to consider is that the current system records only WEEE that goes through ‘official channels’, however large quantities of WEEE (50% or more, according to the Commission) remains outside these channels. In the UK, it is likely that this is collected and properly treated by economic operators - such as scrap dealers - but because it is not reported, no-one knows.  Inevitably some of this does still slip through the net to illegal export or unacceptable treatment routes.

So, the UK needs to make sure that it starts counting all WEEE that is collected in order to have any chance of hitting these new higher targets and close the loopholes currently exploited for illegal export. What we have now is a low counting rate, not necessarily a low collection rate. Therefore, the UK transposition needs to ensure that economic operators continue collecting and treating WEEE as they do now, but also add an extra simple step in order to ensure it is recorded in the system.

There are a number of ways in which this is addressed by the Recast – firstly by increasing the target for WEEE as described above (logically, if more is captured then less can escape), increasing the recovery and recycling targets by 5%, and also tightening the criteria on exports of EEE – making sure that WEEE is not shipped abroad under the premise of working equipment, when in reality it is no longer useable and, in all probability, gets diverted to landfill.

When WEEE is shipped abroad illegally, it can have an utterly destructive social impact, which often results in children as young as five picking over dump sites to extract copper, other metals and plastics from the electronic waste, often exposing them to carcinogenic fumes from burning plastics and a sea of broken glass and metal shards.

It also doesn’t stack up economically, or sustainably, for Europe, because it often results in critical rare materials being lost because recycling standards in developing countries are often unsophisticated and, therefore, only major secondary materials are recovered. This means that trace elements are simply dumped. The Recast identifies 13 such rare earths.

There are various reason why this happens in the UK, but the current system is partly to blame. To provide some background here, in the UK, to prove that WEEE has been recycled responsibly at an approved treatment plant, the regulations work on a system of certificates called evidence notes. Collectively, evidence notes represent the total amount of WEEE collected in any year.

Part of the problem here is that there is the potential for several parties (intermediaries) to become involved in the recycling chain and, where this happens - and WEEE evidence is transferred or traded - its origin becomes untraceable. This means the audit trail becomes longer and less clear – which means the risk of leakage and the illegal export of WEEE increases. It also adds unnecessary cost as margin is added at each stage. This can be easily mitigated right now by dealing directly with those responsible for funding WEEE.

The risk of leakage can significantly decrease where there is a direct relationship between those collecting WEEE and a PCS that actually needs and directly finances the WEEE for its members’ obligations. This is because the audit trail is far shorter so all parties know where WEEE comes from, where it goes to and who pays for its treatment. It also keeps more of the available money in the system helping to sustain UK treatment plant capacity, so how the UK addresses this through the transposition will be crucial.

The authorities, and indeed all stakeholders, have learnt a lot from the past few years, so the next step is for us to take those lessons, and use them to shape the system in the future. How the Recast is transposed into UK law will be crucial and provide a great opportunity to iron out some of the current system anomalies.

For more information about Repic:

Dr Philip Morton, CEO of Repic

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