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.