EU Moves on Electronics Mandates

Although electronics recycling is voluntary in the United States, a current European Union (EU) directive would mandate approximately 28 European countries to have takeback programs on the books within the next five years.

High growth in the continent has spurred concerns about electronics waste and how to dispose of it. In 1998, six million metric tons of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was generated, accounting for 4 percent of the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream, according to the European Commission (EC). WEEE volume is expected to increase by at least 3 percent to 5 percent per year, with an estimated additional 16 percent to 28 percent increase in the next five years, according to the EC.

This increased growth problem has led to three proposed electronics recycling directives. The first two directives were amended and agreed upon by the Council of Ministers of the 15 EU member states. They were sent back to the EU Parliament for a second reading, which is expected to be finished by April 2002. But some observers believe the third directive will not pass because the Parliament may find it difficult to reach a consensus on the effectiveness of a design directive.

The first directive would require countries to enact extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws on electrical and electronics items such as televisions, toasters and medical equipment. Recovery rates, which are expected to be met by 2007, include 90 percent for large appliances, 75 percent for consumer equipment and 70 percent for toys and sporting equipment.

The second directive, Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS), would phase-out heavy metals and brominated flame-retardants in electronics but would have a number of exemptions. For example, lead used in the glass of cathode ray tubes and electronic components, as well as lead in high-temperature solders and networks infrastructures, would be exempt.

Technical experts claim that a lead solder ban would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and require global cooperation on the new standards. Electronics manufacturers also currently are attempting to get more exemptions to the heavy metals bans and make the WEEE requirements less onerous. For example, there is debate over who should pay for the collection and recycling of historical waste electronics, defined as those products made before the act would take effect.

Under the new laws the member countries would have to enact, the electronics industry will have to set up its own collection systems and pay for recycling of old electronics for which there is no known manufacturer — also called “orphan” wastes.

“We are expected to pay for all the waste — this amounts to a ‘green tax,’ which is beyond the scope of the directive,” says James Lovegrove, director of the American Electronics Association (AeA) Europe. “We are asked to pay for others that have gone out of business.”

Lovegrove declined to forecast the industry cost of implementing the directives, but one association once put the cost at approximately $10 billion per year, excluding the cost of phasing-out heavy metals in the products.

There also is debate over whether manufacturers must contribute financially to the collection cost, or if taxpayers should bear the financial burden. In Denmark, for example, taxpayers currently pay the entire collection bill.

Manufacturers that invest in “design for environment” products, including Hewlett-Packard, Palo Alto, Calif., and IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., have pushed for the option of individual takeback instead of collective financing because they do not want to pay the same takeback fees as companies that have made no design investments.

A third directive, focused on electronics design, has gone through its first and second drafts by the EC. The directive specifies provisions for the design (but not, in the second draft, manufacture) of electrical and electronics equipment, and requires a conformity assessment and marking to show that the product has gone through the process. This environmental assurance would function similar to the “essential requirements” of a similar packaging directive, requiring documentation of assessment procedures, according to the directive.

While various industry groups have moved independently in the past, eminent passage of these directives has led to the formation of a coalition that includes AeA Europe, the European Information and Communications Technology Association (EICTA) and the Japan Business Council in Europe.

Final passage of the first two EU electronics directives is not expected until the end of 2002, according to several European lobbyists.