Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The trouble with WEEE

As one of the biggest metal recyclers announces that it plans to withdraw from WEEE recycling, the cracks are beginning to show in the legislation designed to promote recycling of ewaste. Fears have been raised that Sims departure from the market puts achievement of the UK's WEEE targets in jeopardy, but actually the problem goes deeper than that.

The real reason the government compliance schemes can't meet their targets is because there are much more commercially appealing options available. WEEE producer compliance schemes charge the producer a membership fee and a handling fee. Customers typically pay for collection of their WEEE. Yet in many market sectors - especially IT equipment - there are services available which actually return revenue to the organisation returning the unwanted kit. These services are fully compliant with waste legislation, and typically operate higher up the waste hierarchy than WEEE producer compliance schemes. But the WEEE they process doesn't contribute to the government compliance targets.

The WEEE producer compliance system is fundamentally flawed, for several reasons. Firstly, because it operates on the basis of volume targets so it is geared towards collecting the maximum amount of ewaste, not deriving the maximum value from the resources contained within it. Secondly, because it doesn't measure whole device re-use or parts re-use, both of which are preferable to recycling from the point of view of the waste hierarchy. And thirdly because it imposes a cost on the EEE producer which is based purely on market share and takes no account of how easy it is to recover value from the device. As a result, the most expedient process for recyclers is to bulk up ewaste and shred everything, resulting in low-grade recyclate that has little value as a manufacturing resource. Even if a device is working, or repairable, the collection process damages it beyond repair. and there is no incentive on WEEE producers to improve the design of their products to facilitate repairability or material recovery at end of first use.

Compare that with an ICT asset recovery company that inspects devices to determine what can be refurbished or cosmetically improved and resold for second use, what can have spare parts harvested for use in repairing other devices and what can be dismantled so that single metals or polymers can be recovered and returned in as-virgin quality for other manufacturing processes. A large proportion of ICT equipment has sufficient intrinsic value to fund the recovery processes, generate a profit margin for the asset recovery company and even return some value to the producer or the user. Many such programmes offer social value, by making donations to charity or funding education projects. This approach supports the resource stewardship agenda, returns value to the economy and creates jobs, but no account is taken of it in the government's WEEE targets.

Many suppliers of ICT equipment in the B2B sector now find themselves in the same position as my employer. We are compelled to pay into a compliance scheme which hardly any of our customers use because the alternatives are preferable from both an economic and an environmental point of view. Indeed, when we retired old IT we used a free asset recovery service with added social value in preference to the WEEE compliance scheme we offer our customers. The current WEEE legislation will miss its targets because it serves nobody but the compliance partners - and yet apparently they can't make it pay either. We need a better system, and quickly.

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