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Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

Electrical and Electronic Equipment is only one hazardous waste source, but it is treated as a special case.

Electrical and Electronic Equipment normally contains substances which are hazardous and disposal of such items as waste, for landfill or incineration, should be minimised. The EC produced specific directives and the proposals regarding its control should be associated with the Restriction of (Certain) Hazardous Substances (RoHS) which applies to the production of the equipment. It appears that the main burden for hazardous waste control is placed on the manufacturers, by limiting or banning harmful substances at the origin and also placing the responsibility for eventual disposal on the manufacturers. The European Communities legislation to enforce this became law on 13 February 2004 and should have been applied to the UK from August of that year but there were a succession of delays. In the event, the UK start date was successively deferred, first to August of 2005 then January 2006 and then to July 2006 with the achievement of WEEE collection and recycling targets to December 2006. A further delay ensued with the WEEE Regulations due to come into force on 1 January 2007 with the main requirements and obligations on producers and distributors of EEE coming into force from 1 April 2007. Full producer responsibility for the costs of treating household WEEE will start on 1 July 2007.
Even though manufacturers are the main focus, that does not mean large and small user organisations and retailers (even individuals) are absolved from all responsibility when disposing of EEE. Certain 'producers' may be responsible even though they are not the original manufacturers of the components (more information on what is meant by producers is given on the RoHS reference page; see the bottom of this page).

The Commission of the European Communities proposed a Directive (in June 2000) on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) that is designed to protect soil, water and air from pollution caused by management of WEEE, to avoid the generation of waste and to reduce the harmfulness of WEEE. Further objectives are to preserve resources, especially energy and to create harmonisation of national measures across member states.

  The proposal is well documented and to see the details click here to link to The Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling Ltd (ICER). The emphasis on WEEE is because the production of electrical and electronic equipment is one of the fastest growing areas of the manufacturing industry in the Western world. Furthermore, the materials used in the products contain a considerable proportion of hazardous content and their production consumes great quantities of energy.

The Community feels that a directive which applies to all members is necessary because different national policies will lead to cross border movements of WEEE (eg to areas where disposal is cheaper), place unfair financial burdens on operators and create national trade anomalies. Fairness is also a key element in deciding where the inevitable extra costs should rest because, for example, those companies which design and market products to minimise the amount of hazardous waste produced by their products would be at a disadvantage compared to others which did not. It is therefore proposed that the manufacturers should be obliged to have a responsibility for certain phases of the waste management.

The main devices which are identified, as potentially dangerous, in electrical and electronic equipment include printed circuit boards, cables, wires, plastics containing flame retardants, mercury switches, displays (eg cathode ray tubes), batteries, data storage media, light generators (eg lamps), capacitors, resistors, relays, sensors and connectors (mobile phones contain many of the above components).

The substances within these devices which cause most concern environmentally are the heavy metals such as lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, halogenated substances (eg CFCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (aka PCBs, not to be confused with printed circuit boards), PVC and brominated flame retardants (which can give rise to extremely toxic dioxins such as PBDDs and furans such as PBDFs when incinerated). Other components which are mentioned are arsenic, asbestos, nickel and even copper (which can act as a catalyst to increase the formation of dioxins during incineration). Reading the EC proposal has certainly focussed our minds on what a lethal cocktail of pernicious substances are assembled into our apparently innocuous labour-saving and leisure goods around the house. It is obvious from the above that to incinerate E & E devices, materials or components is an extremely dangerous procedure. Not only are the emitted gases very toxic but the residues (sometimes used in the construction industry) are also lethal. Nor is the answer to put E & E equipment into landfill. When this is done there are real dangers caused by leaching and evaporation, not to mention uncontrolled fires.

The proposed solutions involve several phases from production through to use and then disposal. The phases cannot be totally divorced. Producers can reduce the problems at source, so to speak, by adapting the design to the prerequisites of sound waste management and an incentive is proposed by making them partly responsible for the waste management phase at end-of-life. Member states should be obliged to create appropriate collection systems and operators should enable private householders to return equipment without cost. Initially the proposal is to set "soft" targets (in other words not much weight per person) so as to make it practical for the less enthused states to comply. Improved treatment, re-use, recycling and energy recovery targets are to be set and producers even have a rôle here; we presume that local authorities will too. From what we can deduce the user has it fairly easy, the onus seems to be on everyone else to inform the user and make it easy for consumers. Could that be a weak link in the chain of obligations?

The inevitable costs, it is acknowledged, are difficult to predict but as a guide it seems that the measures should not add more than 1 or 2 % and should become less as the systems are developed. It can be expected that in the introductory transition phase the manufacturers will try, one way or another, to lay off some of the costs to consumers; time will tell.

Progress towards compliance in the UK was delayed from an original date of January 2006 until June 2006, although producers are expected to register with the Environment Agency from January. Business users also must bear some of the responsibility but the details are not fully clear to us. It concerns sellers of replacement goods where the original goods were supplied before 13 August 2005.

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  Specific dangers from the poisonous substances are discussed in the proposal; it makes frightening reading, for example:
  • Lead: damages the nervous system of humans, it affects the endocrine system, the cardiovascular system and kidneys. It accumulates and is very toxic for animals, plants and micro-organisms. Consumer electronics accounts for 40% of lead found in landfills from where it can leach into the water system.
  • Cadmium: accumulates with a half-life of 30 years and can damage the kidneys and cause cancer.
  • Mercury: is easily accumulated in organisms and concentrates through the food chain. It has chronic effects and can cause brain damage. About a quarter of the mercury in the world is used in E & E equipment.
  • Chromium (Hexavalent): easily absorbed into cells with toxic effects. The results can be allergic reactions, asthma and it is considered to be genotoxic (damages the DNA). Especially dangerous when incinerated.
  • Brominated Flame Retardants: widely used to reduce flammability (eg cables, connectors and plastic cases of TVs and kitchen equipment). There are different types some of which are easily absorbed and can leach out of landfills and may enter the food chain. The dangers when incinerated are mentioned above. They even pose hazards in the recycling process so it may be argued that they should be avoided altogether.
One commendable way of minimising waste is to refurbish, re-use or recycle, rather than discard it, but with devices which store information there can still be pitfalls where, for example, personal data are stored on the machines such as PCs, under the Data Protection Act. The latter can be handled by specialists in the trade. For some information on the Data Protection Act see the bottom of this page.

The proposal is heavily documented and definitive information should be sought from the ICER site. Additionally, if you feel that you are professionally involved it would be wise to consult one of the increasing number of experts in this field. We have tried to give a digest but cannot cover all the details. Also we have had to paraphrase which may well lead to changes of emphasis in the translation.
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment is of paramount concern and we are pleased to see that the problem is beginning to be addressed on a European scale. It is to be hoped that a unified policy and implementation can be achieved across all member states as soon as possible. Some countries are taking unilateral action to protect the environment from WEEE, but not all. It seems to have the making of a local version of The Kyoto Agreement.
The proposed obligations, it appears to us, are weighted against the producers. Although it is understandable that this may be the easiest policy to enforce, some onus should be put on the users or consumers if the scheme is to be successful. One could expect that most, if not all, of the extra costs will be passed on to the consumer by normal trade practice.

Many of the substances and devices mentioned here are described elsewhere on this envocare site and often there will be more specific details included in those summaries. Additionally they will have been summarised from a wider range of source materials which may make them more interesting. If you want to pursue those alternative summaries then you should find short articles on asbestos, batteries (including lead, cadmium and mercury), mercury, lamps, CFCs & HCFCs etc, plastics (including PVC), incineration, landfill etc. To find these you may find it convenient to use the search facility on the Home Page.

Two other pages which may be of interest are:
The Restriction of the use of Certain Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and
a brief summary of the Data Protection Act



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Originated: Early 2001, Last Amended: 7 May, 2013