Calling time on computer waste

27 Jan 2005

The problem of computer and electronic waste is bad and getting worse. In addition to the unquantifiable amount of such waste that has already accumulated in countless landfill sites, the pipeline of future waste is increasing all the time.

Where once the television or stereo was about as high tech as our homes got, we now fill them with all kinds of gadgetry and electronics devices, from DVD players to MP3 players, plasma TVs to digital cameras.

Taking just one type of product as an example, the number of PCs shipped across the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region totalled 61.7 million units in 2004, a 14pc increase from 2003 (Gartner data).

While consumers may put a lot of thought into their buying decision, they usually pay scant attention to how you dispose of a piece of equipment if it breaks or when it reaches the end of its useful life. A recent Dell-sponsored study of public attitudes towards computer recycling found that only 9pc of Irish consumers plan to recycle their home computer when they are finished with it and that awareness of recycling and reuse was still very low.

The near invisibility of the problem to the public contrasts sharply with the frantic preparations being made by governments across Europe to comply with the WEEE Directive.

The latest legal instrument from the EU — the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive — is due to come into force on 13 August. Under the directive, producers will be responsible for financing the collection, treatment, recovery and disposal of electronic and electrical waste and member states will be expected to achieve an annual collection target of 4kg of recycled waste per citizen.
The new law is intended to curb the tide of computer and electronic waste going to landfill across the region.

For the new directive preparations are some way behind schedule. The directive actually came into force across Europe on 13 February 2003 but member countries were given until the 13 August 2004 to transpose the legislation into national law, with arrangements for the actual operation of the directive to be put in place by 13 August 2005.

No member state made the August 2004 deadline and the race is now under way in each one both to draft legislation and to put the appropriate collection and recycling facilities in place.

Preparations in Ireland are being spearheaded by the WEEE Taskforce within the Department of the Environment, whose members are drawn from IBEC, the ICT industry, the Environmental Protection Agency, the waste management industry, local authorities and the department itself.

“We’re on course to implement it by August and although the timing is tight we’re confident that we’ll make it happen,” reports taskforce chairman Pat Macken, head of waste prevention and recovery section within the department.

Macken also says that he hopes that draft legislation will be published next month. The challenge then will be to ensure that the necessary collection and recycling facilities are ready for the 13 August lift-off.

This will be far from easy. The directive has set a target that every member state is required to collect at least 4kg of household waste per inhabitant per year (about 16,000 tonnes per annum). The existence of a national network of take back or collection centres will play a crucial role in deciding whether this target is met. In the taskforce’s report, it was stressed that civic amenity sites would be “fundamental” to the collection effort. However, while the report estimated that 80 such sites would be available come August, Macken concedes that only 61 have been set up so far and not all of these will be able to collect WEEE waste.

“We accept that there won’t be full complement of civic amenity sites. We accept that we don’t have sufficiently large network. There’s the NIMBY [not in my back yard] factor and the cost of land to consider. Also, we’re trying to be pragmatic and realistic in terms of what we can do,” says Macken. He is hopeful, however, that Rehab-run and privately managed sites can make up some, if not all, of the shortfall.

While the taskforce wrestles with the nitty-gritty of devising a workable collection system, the real burden of compliance falls on the scores of firms that comprise the global computer and electronics industry. Kirstie McIntyre, UK WEEE manager for computer maker Hewlett-Packard (HP), complains that the delays in drafting legislation at the national level has made the WEEE Directive something of a guessing game for producers. “HP intends to be compliant but it’s our best guess as to what we’ll be compliant with,” she says.

Similarly, Jean Cox-Kearns, senior take back and recycling manager at DELL EMEA, accuses the Government of dithering on the issue. “The Irish Government said before it transposed the directive it wanted to see how it would work but we in industry have been saying that we don’t know how it’s going to work until the legislation is transposed.”

She feels, moreover, that “there are still tonnes of unanswered questions” and says the fact that Ireland (and other countries) have yet to transpose the directive into law gives producers very little time to prepare in detail for the new law.

In other ways, producers have been preparing the directive for years. Even before WEEE came into law, producers, particularly larger ones, will say that they have been taking a close look at the environmental impact of their products, not only for corporate responsibility reasons but because it made economic sense to do so.

As McIntyre explains: “Our scanners, for example, used to have mercury backlights but we found mercury was difficult and expensive to deal with. Scanners now have LED arrays. This makes them less expensive to manufacture and less expensive to dispose of at the end of life.”

Producers accept that implementing the directive will be costly but precisely how costly will depend on several factors, such as the type of collection scheme set up in each country. In some countries such as here in Ireland, producers have banded together to jointly fund a third-party organisation responsible for co-ordinating collection and recycling initiatives. Other countries however, such as Belgium, The Netherlands and Switzerland, have mandated producers to join a government-backed compliance scheme. While these systems tend to be simpler for the producer they are also a lot more expensive.

McIntyre notes that for the WEEE Directive to be successful, not only will the appropriate infrastructure and systems need to be created, but also a culture change will need to take place among ordinary people. “It’s partly a communication issue for us. The WEEE Directive puts responsibility on producers to tell people that they can’t put products in the bin.

“One of the big challenges is small products. If a product fits in your bin it will be a certain type of person who won’t throw it away. You can’t put a TV in your bin but you can an electrical toothbrush.”

By Brian Skelly