Electronics Waste is a hot issue.

This week the European Parliament backed a proposal to re-write the WEEE directive. WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, and the directive sets requirements for the end-of-life management in the growing electrical and electronic product sector. The re-write attempts to address wide disparities in the success of the existing directive, which requires collection of 4kg/person of WEEE. Currently, Sweden tops the ranking of European nations with 16 kg per person of WEEE collected, while Italy collects only 1 kg per person. The proposed directive attempts to level the playing field for WEEE as well; so that the Italians could satisfy the directive if it is shown that Swedish people purchase 16 times more EEE than Italians. Although this is a stretch, it is only fair that targets be set in relation to actual consumer behavior.

WEEE has been in force since early 2003. The Directive has resulted in collection of 65% of the electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market. However, the intention to demonstrate that this collected equipment is properly disposed by responsible recycling and waste management has failed. More than half of the collected waste may still be “leaking out” to substandard treatment, or even illegal exports.

The new directive does not significantly change the collection goal, which is based on the average amount of EEE placed on the market for two years preceding each collection year. But the proposal is being lauded for setting aggressive goals, between 50 and 75% depending on category, for the recycling of collected WEEE. The proposal highlights both the health hazards of leaving WEEE in landfills and the loss of valuable raw materials as reasons to adopt stricter recycling targets. The proposal also would implement a goal for the re-use of 5% of collected WEEE. There are currently no requirements for returning disposed equipment to service.

A lot of discussion must ensue before a second reading of the proposal in Parliament later this year. For instance, should toaster sellers have to take back mobile phones? Or should communities collect all miscellaneous small equipment as they currently collect sorted compostables, paper, plastic, and remaining wastes? How must companies placing EEE on the market pay to ensure proper handling of WEEE? And how can the bureaucracy ensure that EEE suppliers are not writing a blank check for inefficient waste management practices?