Analysis: UK makes a mess of waste regulations

Regulations covering the disposal of electrical waste are finally coming into effect, yet the schemes in place for removing hazardous waste from landfills are far from effective.

Analysis: UK makes a mess of waste regulations

From July, the responsibility for disposing of e-waste passes to producers – everyone from Dell to cornershop system builders, importers and re-badgers – as part of the much-delayed WEEE directive. Under the regulations, producers must register with one of 37 approved compliance schemes that collect and recycle hardware from designated facilities. The problem is, only a small fraction of producers signed up to schemes by the March deadline.

Steve Gough, chief executive of Valpak, which runs a compliance scheme, says, ‘if we get 75 per cent of all producers signed up in the first year, we’ll be lucky,’ while industry estimates suggest that by the end of March only a fifth of companies had signed up.

‘The DTI released details of the schemes late,’ says Keith Warburton, chief executive of the Professional Computing Association. ‘It gave them just 15 days to choose between the 37 schemes, and there are an awful lot of people still unaware.’

Companies that have signed up are angry because they’ll be paying for the thousands of unsubscribed producers. ‘Anyone that doesn’t sign up has a price advantage,’ says Warburton. ‘They’ll have lower overheads, while their rivals’ costs go up, so people should report anyone they think isn’t registered.’

How much a company will pay depends on various factors, not least how much it produces – payments are decided by dividing the total costs of recycling and allocating a percentage to each producer depending on its self-declared market share.

The problem is exacerbated by the potential for producers to play fast and loose with the figure they submit, because that ultimately determines what percentage of the total costs they must bear. ‘Everyone will keep numbers to a minimum,’ admits Mick Thomas, WEEE expert at Evesham. ‘It isn’t easy to know what is and isn’t WEEE – spare parts, for example, are not – and, if in doubt, are companies really going to declare more than they have to?’

The Environment Agency says it will monitor the situation and punish companies that breach the rules, but when even the computer industry is unsure of how many producers there are in the UK the Environment Agency has little chance of ensuring compliance.

‘No-one knows how big the system-builder market is,’ says Warburton. ‘It’s anywhere between 4,000 and 7,000, which makes this directive difficult to police.’

To make matters worse, some compliance schemes are unhappy because they believe the system for deciding which recyclers have access to the most lucrative markets is unfair. The DTI proposed an allocation scheme to divvy up the richest collection points, such as London where concentrated population means council dumps are brimming with waste. ‘The allocation system collapsed because some of the players – mainly the established waste-disposal companies – didn’t want the system put into place,’ said an e-waste expert at one compliance scheme. ‘The waste companies didn’t want to lose markets.’

Even if you buy from a company that’s signed up to a scheme, it doesn’t mean your PC will be disposed of properly. According to Greenpeace, unscrupulous waste companies exploit loopholes in the law and e-waste is routinely exported to developing nations.

‘Waste companies aren’t allowed to export waste to non-WEEE or non-OECD countries, but they get round that problem in the guise of ‘reuse’, where rather than being exported as waste they’re exported as products,’ says Iza Kruszewska, a toxins campaigner with Greenpeace. Greenpeace inspections of 18 European seaports in 2005 found that as much as 47 per cent of waste destined for export, including e-waste, was illegal. In the UK alone, at least 23,000 metric tons of undeclared or ‘grey’ market electrical waste was illegally shipped in 2003 to the Far East, India, Africa and China.

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