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Boosting Recycling in the EU: the Waste Directive (Electrical & Electronic Equipment)


The Waste Directive is intended to reduce the quantity of waste from electrical and electronic equipment and to increase its re-use, recovery and recycling. The directive affects producers, distributors and recyclers of all electrical and electronic equipment - including household appliances, IT and telecoms equipment, audio-visual equipment (TV, video, hi-fi), lighting, electrical and electronic tools, toys, leisure and sports equipment. It came into force in the United Kingdom, after several delays, on 1 July 2007.


A large quantity of waste electrical and electronic equipment is disposed of each year in the EU, much of it in landfill. In the UK alone the waste amounts to 1.2 million tonnes annually and across the EU it adds up to an average of 14kg per person per year. In order to deal with this the EU agreed a directive in 2003 to require producers to pay for the cost of recycling the waste. The directive is complex, partly because of the scale of the task, but also because of the approach adopted. The UK has not been alone in finding it difficult to implement. Eight EU Member States, including the UK, have been formally warned by the European Commission about their failure to transpose the Directive into their national law by the agreed date of August 2004.

The Directive’s Provisions

The main requirements of the directive are:

· that Member States set up systems to encourage separate collection of electrical and electronic waste and are to establish systems which will allow the disposal of such waste free of charge to the final holder;

· that whilst there is no mandatory requirement for householders to separate all waste electrical and electronic items, Member States must encourage appropriate behaviour;

· that retailers are to ensure that this waste is taken back on a one to one basis when a new, equivalent product is supplied; but Member States can provide that retailers make alternative arrangements instead, provided that they are free of charge to the final holder of the waste;

· that by 31 December 2006, Member States must achieve a collection rate of at least 4 kilograms on average per inhabitant per year of waste electrical and electronic equipment from private households;

· that Member States are to ensure that all such waste collected from private households is transported to treatment facilities authorised under Article 6. Article 6 sets down standards which treatment facilities will have to meet;

· and that Member States ensure that systems are set up by producers to provide for recovery and re-use of separately collected waste according to set recovery, re-use and recycling targets. Targets are set as a proportion of collected waste electrical and electronic equipment from private households.

The UK’s Approach

The notion of individual producers being responsible for the recovery and disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment, whilst a laudable aim, has proved to be immensely difficult to implement. The UK has found this no easier than any other Member State and has arrived, after widespread consultation, at an approach which involves a mixture of recovery through retailers and through the established local authority amenity sites.

All producers of this kind of waste are required to join a scheme for the recovery and disposal of waste electrical and electronic equipment and more than 3,300 had done so by July 2007. Some retailers, (as distributors of electrical or electronic goods they are covered by the directive), will take back used items when a customer purchases a similar item from them. But mostly this waste will be recovered through local authority amenity sites where facilities have been paid for by industry in order to meet their obligations. These industry schemes ensure that the waste is taken to an approved local authority site where it will be taken away and disposed of free of charge. The Government believes that no cost should fall on local authorities as a result of the use of their sites in this way; £10 million is being provided by industry to pay these costs.

The delay in the implementation of the directive has been regrettable. It is also of concern that few of the public are aware of its implementation; as few as 2 per cent according to a survey for the retailer Comet. Awareness amongst the business community is greater but many small enterprises lack an understanding of what the directive requires of them, despite considerable publicity.

Next steps

The UK is not the only country to be the subject of proceedings by the Commission for having failed to implement the law. It will have to decide what action, if any, to take against these Member States. The directive is due to be reviewed in 2008 and that review is likely to highlight the difficulties of the concept of individual producer responsibility.

August 2007

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