EU new rules add to the 'paper versus electronic' debate

Submitted by: Vince Collins 20/01/2012

The environmental benefits of electronic devices versus print media are coming under increasing scrutiny. Recent European Parliament legislation is focussing on the issue.

The argument over whether the electronic devices are more environmentally friendly than print media has always been overshadowed by the increasing mountain of electronic waste that is making its way into the municipal waste stream.Additionally, electronic devices, at the end of their life, are being exported to third world countries often under licences which state they are fit for re-use. In reality, these items are disposed of in very unsustainable ways.
See a fascinating video on the disposal of electronic waste here:
A report on the European Parliament legislation, kindly reproduced from follows.
The European Parliament approved legislation to strengthen the recovery of computers and other electronic and electrical waste while tightening exports of used goods to developing countries, ending months of hard-fought negotiations. MEPs adopted the revamped Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment(WEEE) Directive after months of pitched battles over how ambitious the binding law would be.

“We have reached an agreement and it has not been easy,” German MEP Karl-Heinz Florenz (European People's Party), the parliamentary rapporteur, said before the vote.

The legislation obliges EU countries to collect up to 85% of junked refrigerators, mobile phones, computers and other electronic products by 2019 for recycling, replacing a current system based on weight. The Commission had recommended a 65% target. Only about one-third of electronic waste is recycled today, and half is exported, according to the Parliament.

Among other provisions, the legislation:

  • Requires larger retailers to provide collection points for discarded phones and other small devices to encourage consumers to recycle – although some business groups complained this placed the collection burden on them.
  • Introduces a new requirement aimed at preventing European companies from dumping potentially hazardous goods outside the EU.

The compromise agreement on WEEE garnered broad support across political groups and national leaders signed off on the recast directive a month ago. Advocates say the new directive will help businesses by setting common EU standards aimed at boosting recycling and encouraging resource efficiency. They also praise new measures aimed at ending potentially harmful substances from ending up at disposal sites abroad.

“We have 27 different standards, so if you ask the question, what is recycling, you could get 27 different definitions,” Florenz told a news conference in Strasbourg. “The Commission says that is not really the case, but it seems that the member states are doing whatever they want and after having been a member for such a long time of this house, I can tell you they they do do what they want.”

The EU’s 27 countries will have until mid-2013 to incorporate the new rules into national law once given formal approval by the EU Council of Ministers, though new members will have two extra years to meet the new targets.

Mining silver and gold

MEPs see the more demanding collection and recycling targets in step with the EU’s commitment to improve resource efficiency. Gold, silver and rare earth metals contained in discarded products or shipped abroad could be recycled in Europe to cut dependence on imports, advocates said.

"The collecting target for member states set by the new regulation is very ambitious and we have introduced a new category of collecting material for the small IT and telecom equipment,” said Marita Ulvskog, vice president of the Socialists and Democrats group. “This means that the recovery of rare earth materials will improve greatly," the Swedish MEP said.

Some environmental groups, however, said the legislation did not go far enough in setting higher targets sooner. While the 85% target is an ultimate goal, the legislation imposes a recovery target of 45% of new electronic sales in 2016 and 65% in 2019 and gives newer EU members extra time to comply. “Collection targets have been delayed and the introduction of economic instruments for greener design, reuse targets and ambitious recycling targets have been left to a future revision, which is a bitter blow to the environment and Europe’s economic development,” said Stéphane Arditi, senior policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau. 

The conservation group also criticised provisions on exports which will require companies to certify that goods sent abroad still have some practical use, saying there is too much wiggle room to export junk.

Chris Davies (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, UK), one of the parliamentary negotiators on the directive, defended the results. "MEPs fought hard to set a higher target for the recovery, recycling and re-use of e-waste,” Davies said in a statement. "The new rules will make clearer what used items can be legally exported. This will help to curb the criminals who ship electronic gadgets overseas where it is dismantled by children and the poor often in hazardous and toxic conditions.”

Retail groups complained that the directive unfairly makes businesses responsible for collection and recycling. “This places the burden squarely on private enterprises and is simply not acceptable,” the European craft and small business employers’ group EUAPME said in a statement.