Irish tech firms can profit from recycling law

14 Aug 2003

Computer recycling expert Padraic Delaney (pictured) argues that the long-awaited Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which came into force yesterday, presents a huge challenge to the computer and electronics industry but also a unique opportunity for Irish technology firms to carve out a new business niche.

“We need to close the engineering loop between product design, product manufacture and product life cycle,” says Delaney. “Future challenges and opportunities must address environmental impacts, as outlined in the WEEE Directive and complement technical developments within environmental guidelines. There is an opportunity for the Irish tech sector to set a standard here – from R&D and beyond.”

The directive makes producers of electrical and electronic equipment responsible for setting up and funding recycling schemes in order to reduce the amount of redundant equipment ending up in landfills. To make sure that the producer can be made responsible for this, there will be a mark on the appliance that clearly identifies them as the producer. The appliances in question include computers, telephones, televisions, radios, mobile phones, fridges, and washing machines. The initial target set by the directive is that four to six kilos of WEEE waste material per head of population be recycled annually. In Ireland, this will translate to a massive 6.1 million tonnes of waste from electrical and electronic equipment having to be recycled every year.

Delaney, who once headed the global computer refurbishment operation of US server producer Stratus and spent 10 years in Japan on behalf of Shannon Development and the IDA, is currently acting as a business development consultant to waste management firm Fingal Recyling.

He believes that that Directive represents a watershed in the battle against the growing problem of computer and electronic waste. One problem he identifies, however, is that not enough manufacturers build materials recycling into the design stage. “One example is that computer casings are made with a fire-retardant coating which contaminates the plastic and makes it impossible to recycle,” he says.

Computer manufacturers will have to start looking at ways of putting machines together that allow the constituent materials to be separated from each other at the end of the machines’ useful life. There is an exciting opportunity, he believes, for Irish engineering and design firms to work with manufacturers to create solutions that can meet environmental standards without impairing performance. Delaney adds that such an industry would be fully in keeping with the Government’s stated aim of a creating a knowledge-based economy underpinned by high-skill jobs.

As to the wider question of waste management and recycling, Delaney feels that Ireland is at a crossroads. On the one hand, he sees some encouraging signs. The successful implementation of the Packaging Directive showed Irish businesses were able to work together to achieve set recovery and recycling targets through the Repak initiative. Overall, however, the environmental message is yet to hit home with Irish firms – hardly surprising he feels since the government itself has hardly provided a good example. In fact the State’s environmental record itself is extremely poor, not just with regard to electronic equipment but with regard to waste management in general. “The EU recently found 111 cases in which Ireland had flouted environmental regulations from air emission to foreshore erosion management,” notes Delaney. “What does that say about our ability and willingness to implement the WEE Directive?”

What is required is a fundamental change in attitude. “People need to understand that waste management is a hierarchy. The top level – and the number one priority – is reducing the amount of waste we produce. After that, you should aim to re-use as many products as possible and then look to recycle the rest. But there are some manufacturers out there who are still designing equipment that has a short lifespan so that it will need to be replaced in a few years. If a product has a lifespan of three years, manufacturers should be encouraged to extend that to five or seven years.”

But the success or otherwise of the WEE Directive will ultimately depend on the Government’s willingness to enforce it. “It’s not rocket science: if a dog fouls the footpath the way to deal with it is either to prosecute the owner or to provide the facilities that allow the owner to clean up after their dog.” He feels that a similarly common sense approach is the key to tackling the issue of computer and electronics waste.

By Brian Skelly