After a drawn-out session that lasted into the night, the EU Environmental Council at last came to an agreement on what it thinks should be done to fix the waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) Directive. Despite some moves in the right direction, the agreement reached by the Council was disappointing in its lack of ambition.
E-waste contains many materials, some of which are highly valuable, toxic, or both. As the European Commissioner explained to ministers in the Council, the revision of the WEEE Directive is important not only from an environmental and health protection perspective, but also as “a test of how serious the EU is about resource efficiency.” It appears from the Council decision that the EU is not too serious at all.
During the session, the President (currently Hungary) explained, if the EU wants to take a “flagship role” in the efficient management of resources, then it needs to have the right legislative documents on waste management. Indeed, he explained that the EU needs to see e-waste “as a valuable resource rather than a burden”.
Yet this ambitious talk was unfortunately not reflected in the Council’s decision. For instance, consider the Council’s position on collection targets for e-waste. If the Council has its way, four years after the revised Directive comes into force, less than half of the electrical and electronic equipment put on the market will need to be collected as e-waste.
This will leave more than half of the e-waste in the EU unaccounted for - either lying wasted in storage, dumped domestically in landfill or on other countries where management requirements are less stringent. In these scenarios, precious resources are squandered, and given the toxic content of e-waste, communities and the environment suffer.
Also, the Council’s decision on recovery targets missed the opportunity to exploit the resource efficiency benefits of reuse. For instance, reuse of a functional computer is 20 times more energy efficient than recycling it. Indeed, the WEEE Directive recognises this, by stating that reuse should be favoured over recycling. (See Computer Aid International Special Report: Why reuse is better than recycling.)
The Council made the positive step of including the reuse of whole appliances in the recovery targets, as opposed to components only. But, by failing to give reuse a stand-alone target, combining it instead with an increased target for recycling, the Council may not encourage increased reuse in practice. This is because current infrastructure is geared toward recycling.
All is not lost, however; the Council will meet with the European Parliament later in the year, to negotiate an agreed position, before any revised laws are in place. As the European Environmental Bureau explains, given that the European Parliament’s position was much more ambitious than the Council’s, we can only hope that their position wins out in the end. Only then can the EU begin to be seen to be walking the walk on e-waste.
This month I’ve been in Skopje, Macedonia, helping to run a training event with the national NGO leads of the Balkans E-Waste Management Advocacy Network (BEWMAN).
Over one week, we worked through some of the key issues and potential solutions to the e-waste problem, based on experiences from other NGOs working in the issue. Stephane Arditi of the European Environmental Bureau, and David Rochat of SOFIES, were guest presenters that also gave valuable contributions.
You can read more about the training event here. Some of the key messages highlighted in the training included:
- E-waste is the most rapidly-growing of all the waste streams
- Poor electronics design means that e-waste is toxic and more difficult to manage than many other wastes
- Poor e-waste management can pollute the environment and damage the health of citizens across the region
- E-waste contains many valuable materials and safely recovering these provides job and wealth creation opportunities for the region
- Actions like making electronics producers responsible for their equipment over the full product life cycle, and encouraging consumers to reuse functional equipment and keep e-waste out of landfill can minimise the environmental and health impacts of electronics
The NGOs in the BEWMAN network will now be able to build on the knowledge gained in the training to develop their advocacy strategies for the coming year.
Check out the BEWMAN flikr stream of the event here.
Working on e-waste issues 9 to 5 has the unfortunate effect of making me somewhat desensitied to numbers. But every now and again I come across a figure that makes me rediscover the scale of the challenge anew.
Take this one. Last year, some 50 million tons of e-waste generated worldwide, and only 13% was recycled. This is worrying, given that electronics contain toxic substances, like heavy metals that can harm human health and pollute the environment. What’s more, they also contain valuable and recoverable materials that are becoming increasingly scarce on the world market. The European Union is sufficiently concerned about the scarcity of rare earth metals - crucial to the manufacture of high tech products - to seek a strategy to secure their supply.
Globally, e-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream. What strategies should we put in place to deal with this? Technological innovation in electronics has lead to products that are increasingly difficult to upgrade to extend product life or disassemble for recycling, and expensive marketing campaigns drive perceptions of obselescene - and thus replacement - of perfectly functional equipment.
Clearly, end-of-pipe solutions won’t work for e-waste, as they do nothing to reduce waste generation in the first place. Additionally, safely recycling e-waste comes at a cost. This financial and environmental burden has traditionally been externalised, increasingly to developing countries where labour is cheap though workers and communities suffer with their health and a destroyed environment.
Given that it is producers that make key design decisions and that it is producers that have profited through toxic, wasteful design, we need an approach that makes them include the real cost of technology in their goods, including those incurred when they become waste.
This very approach is taken by the European Union (EU), where electronics manufacturers have a legal duty to be responsible for their products over their entire life cycle, including at end-of-life. This extended producer responsibility (EPR) approach is designed to drive eco-design and to shift the costs of end-of-life management away from communities and onto producers, who will then internalise them into the product price.
Computer Aid International explores some of these issues as they relate to one contributor to the e-waste pile: ICT equipment. In the third in a series of Special Reports on ICT and the Environment, ‘Green ICT - what producers must do’, they recommend the implementation of the EPR principle globally:
- Producers should be responsible for the end-of-life management of their goods in all countries they operate in, not just in rich developed countries, so that all nations can build the operational capacity to re-use IT equipment and to recycle e-waste.
- Shift the cost of toxic, wasteful design away from communities and the environment to the producer.
- Producers must be forced to include the real costs of their goods through wide-ranging EPR programmes that encourage eco-design.
If followed, these recommendations could get us to a place where we are generating slightly less staggering amount of e-waste, and recovering a hell of a lot more of it.
The excellent ‘Self-Repair Manifesto’, developed by iFixit, a free repair manual that is open to anyone to access and edit. Pass it on!
The Story of Electronics - a great animation jointly developed by the Story of Stuff Project and the Electronics Take-Back Coalition - was launched today. Good overview of some of the issues around electronics and e-waste, including of extended producer responsibility, and provides pointers for action.
A decision on Kyoto emissions goals is not the only thing put on hold by EU Environment Ministers during last week’s meeting of the Council of the European Union. Progress on the update of the EU’s approach to e-waste management - the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive - took another step backwards by slipping off the Council’s agenda all together.
It has since been reported that any agreement will be put on hold until 2011. The Council will only come to a decision following agreement being reached by another of the European Union’s decision-making bodies - the European Parliament - which is unlikely to occur this year.
Of course, the hope is that what comes out of the WEEE Directive update is the best legislation possible. But successive delays in the process mean that it is hard to see how seriously the issue is being taken. The passage of the proposed changes through European Parliament has already been postponed not once, but twice.
Also, some of the more demanding proposals for changes to the WEEE Directive - including a substantial increase of collection targets - will take some time to implement on a Member State level. Thus, as each decision-making step is pushed back further and further, one could be legitimately concerned about how long it will take for any positive changes to the Directive filter through from policy to practice.
While the EU seems to be twiddling its thumbs, the e-waste problem is not going away. We’re on our way to generating 12 million tonnes of the stuff, and we’re only properly treating one-third of it. The next steps in the WEEE Directive rewrite are crucial, but we need a show of will on behalf of MEPs and Environment Ministers, so that they give e-waste the attention that it deserves.
They need to approve radical changes on a number of fronts to mitigate the environmental and health risk posed by e-waste, including new, higher targets, better policing and streamlined procedures. And they need this to happen NOW, not in 2011.
E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the EU, and yet the current policy instrument used to address this, the waste electrical and electronic (WEEE) Directive, is failing. Only one-third of e-waste collected in the EU is treated according to the Directive requirements - the rest is completely unaccounted for, either landfilled, sent to sub-standard treatment facilities or illegally exported.
So what is to be done? Clearly, massive improvements to the system are necessary. However, repeated delays in some of the crucial legislative steps towards an updated version of the WEEE Directive could lead one to wonder just how seriously the EU is taking e-waste.
The European Parliament should have been considering this issue next week (see previous post), though decisions have been put on hold for yet another month - we may not see any changes come into affect until next year.
One of the other key decision-making bodies of the EU, the Council of the European Union, is expected to come to some sort of ‘political agreement’ this week on its position in relation to proposed changes to the Directive that would help fix some of the gaps in the current system.
Here’s a refresher on what they should agree to, as outlined in Computer Aid Special Report on the WEEE Directive recast:
- Streamline administration and clarify the Directive’s scope to include all WEEE
- Reduce waste generation in the first place through eco-design – use less toxics and improve recoverability, with producers individually responsible for collection and treatment of their own goods
- Collect more equipment for processing – set a higher target of at least 85 percent of WEEE arising
- Reuse more whole appliances – set distinct reuse targets and standards
- Recover more materials through better recycling – set higher targets and standards
- Increase policing and enforcement to end dumping and illegal trade in e-waste
Agree to these measures, and we will be well on the way to mitigating the environmental and health impacts of the 12 million tonnes of e-waste we’ll be generating a year by 2020.
Cranes litter the skyline here in Skopje, giving at least the appearance of transformation (see Macedonia: Online Rebellion Against “Skopje 2014” Plan). But one transformation I and my colleages here would definitely like to see is one to the city’s - and the country’s - approach to e-waste management.
I’m in Skopje to meet colleagues of the Macedonian contingent of the Balkans E-Waste Management Advocacy Network (BEWMAN), which also includes Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, and also to get an overview the e-waste situation in the country. Thursday was the kick-off meeting for the Macedonian Network – there will be similar for the other countries.
End-of-life electronics – or e-waste – represent a big challenge for governments worldwide; Macedonia is not exception.
Indeed, the challenges abound here: there is very little awareness about the threats to the environment and public health of this growing waste stream and there are little to no options for safe end-of-life management. In fact, there are no reliable data to indicate how much actual or pending e-waste is out there in Macedonian homes, businesses and public institutions.
So, what to do? We have learnt from experiences in the EU and elsewhere is that proper e-waste management needs at least the following:
- The existence of a ‘recycling’ culture (or at the very least a public that is aware of the e-waste issue and is motivated to do something about it)
- A legal framework provided by nation states that outlines responsibilities amongst the many stakeholders in the ‘e-waste chain’ – producers, retailers, municipalities and other governmental bodies, waste management companies and consumers
- Producers that take financial responsibility for the collection and treatment of their own products when they become waste
- Good collection networks that consumers can take their end-of-life electronics to with minimum effort
- Strong enforcement mechanisms, so that e-waste doesn’t find its way to unsafe treatment routes
Setting up something similar in Macedonia will require a lot of awareness-raising, cooperation and knowledge-sharing amongst the many stakeholders involved in e-waste management. It will also require more information about the local situation, and about what experiences and best practices elsewhere (particularly the EU) can teach Macedonia on its journey to good e-waste management. This is what is so great about BEWMAN; it will bring a lot of this to the table.
The Macedonian network took a giant leap in this direction yesterday, when we were invited (with the help of NDI) to provide a policy briefing at a session of the Macedonia Assembly’s Commission of Transport, Communication and the Environment. The room was full – 15 MPs, a handful of representatives of the Ministry of the Environment, plus other people interested in the issue. It was very encouraging to have such a big turn-out.
We set out for attendees the issue of e-waste, and how it is being approached in the EU (through the Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment – the ‘WEEE Directive’). We also set out for them some key areas for considerations for Macedonia’s approach to e-waste management, and what BEWMAN will be doing to drive the issue forward.
While there remains a lot to do, I think that after yesterday, we can well and truly say that e-waste has been put higher up on the agenda in Macedonia. Watch this space…