EU Legislation: The Big Chill

There's a surprise in store for those hankering after a 'white' Christmas this festive season. Caroline Jory investigates a bizarre sequence of events that could litter the UK's streets with unwanted domestic fridges and freezers

On 1 January 2002, the EU's Ozone Depleting Substances Directive (ODS) comes into effect. It states that all CFC gases from the insulation foam in fridges and freezers will have to be recovered and recycled in specialist plants. It's a simple and uncomplicated piece of legislation. But the specialist plants required to handle 3m fridges and freezers UK consumers discard each year have yet to be built.

Lack of adequate preparation is proving a thorn in the side for various government departments, including the Treasury, as well as local authorities, suppliers and manufacturers.

The recently formed and much troubled Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), has the lead on ODS. But the foot and mouth crisis has forced it to concentrate on more pressing matters. Meanwhile, according to a spokeswoman, DEFRA is trying to fast track setting standards for the removal of CFCs of foam in fridges.

Happy New Year

If a solution is not found very quickly, stores that have previously had take-back schemes will have to stop them. The potential for mass flytipping of old appliances poses a huge dilemma for local authorities. DEFRA recently advised them to collect appliances and 'stockpile' them until a suitable plant has been built.

However, as one recycling officer in the West Country states: 'We have about 15,000 of them delivered to our household waste recycling centres by members of the public each year.' As a result the local authorities have been meeting with the contractors building specialist fragmenting plants, which should be in operation by the spring. In the meantime, the contractors have agreed to take the fridges and freezers from the local authorities and store them - at a cost of £25-£40 per fridge.

With four months of storage time until the plants are fully operational, each local authority will have to allocate £150,000 just to cover these costs. Given that local authorities have more pressing needs to spend their budgets on, it raises the question how this situation could have arisen in the first place.

More worrying still is the fact that the ODS legislation is relatively simple compared with what lies around the corner. The European Parliament is clearly putting environmental issues at the forefront of its agenda, and applying pressure on member states to seek solutions across the design, manufacture and end-of-life cycle stages of all electronic and electrical equipment.

Legislation is long overdue, and while such electrical and electronic waste currently constitutes-just 4% of all municipal waste in the UK, this figure is expected to double in the next 10 years.

Play now, pay later

As the trend for consumer purchase of the latest technological gadgets and gizmos reaches fever pitch, the need to find a way to dispose of the old products in an environmentally sound way is becoming more urgent, and the EU is serious about tackling it.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEED), undergoing its second reading in the European Parliament, is due to be passed by summer 2003 with implementation in member states expected 18 months later. The proposal focuses on the recovery and recycling of a wide range of electrical and electronic equipment that falls within a range of up to 1000 volts AC and 1500 volts DC, and includes all large and small household appliances, IT and telecoms equipment, toys, lighting equipment, and electrical and electronic tools.

One of the directive's main elements is its stipulation that electrical and electronic equipment 'producers' will have to pay for a take-back and recycling scheme. Obviously, if fridges and freezers take-back schemes collapse under pressure from the ODS Directive, we are in big trouble when it comes to adhering to WEEED.

High cost of failure

If the UK government fails to ensure compliance with any of these directives, penalties will be enforced. For proof of what happens if a country ignores this type of EU legislation, it need look no further than Greece and Spain. In 2000, Greece was fined Euro 20,000 a day for non-compliance with toxic waste disposal, while in 2001, Spain was fined Euro 45,600 a day for not adhering to the Bathing Water Quality Directive.

However, if the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) has anything to do with it, British industry will be well prepared for WEEED. ICER, described by director Claire Snow as 'a forum for bringing people together…to pull together all different interests in a cross-sectional organisation', estimates the annual compliance cost to UK plc to be in the region of £2bn. It is working with the Department of Trade and Industry, local authorities and producers to come up with a fair solution.

The Confederation of British Industry has expressed a number of concerns over WEEED, not least financial. According to a recent CBI report the financial impact of the directive will amount to Euro 7.5bn a year running costs, Euro 15bn in new investment to deal with required technological changes and Euro 40bn to deal with historical waste, based on the assumption that the WEEED Directive is delayed for five years.

As CBI spokesperson Kamini Paul explains, this is one of the most contentious issues. 'Currently, it is the intention of the Commission to make the future WEEED retro-active in effect and to make producers pay for the end of life phase of those products already in the marketplace at the time of adoption.'

The 'potential volumes' of such historical waste will come with a hefty price tag that SMEs in particular will find extremely difficult to pay. In Paul's opinion: 'The directive has been pushed through too fast, the Environmental Agency is not giving any technical guidance, and everyone is operating in a regulatory framework vacuum.'

The Institute of Directors (IOD) is also putting forward the case for SMEs, working in conjunction with the DTI-funded Small Business Service, which is trying to coordinate responses and monitor the new legislation. Following a survey sent out to its members, the IOD recently published a report, Watch out for the WEEED. Author and business research executive Geraint Day states: 'Whatever the desirability of reducing waste, businesses will have to cope with costs as well as opportunities… As ever, the smaller the business, the greater the proportionate effort.'

The overriding concern among the SMEs that responded to the survey is that the government will take the legislation, as well as incurring penalties, too far without allowing adequate preparation time for those that need it. As Day comments: 'Once directives are in place, the UK government has a reputation of gold-plating legislation, making them more complicated.'

Business benefits

On a more positive note, a number of recycling firms can expect to benefit from the new business opportunities. One such company, Bruce Electronics Recycling (itself an active member of ICER) has teamed up with Getech Ltd, one of the UK's largest computer distributors, to offer a free trial recycling collection service for IT equipment. According to recycling manager Ed Daughtrey, the company's specialist monitor crushing plant is the only one of its kind and scale in this country. His advice to all businesses with IT equipment - ie, just about every business in the country - is to make sure they are aware of how the forthcoming legislation will affect them, and to implement a recycling strategy sooner rather than later.

Other companies that are taking the lead with recycling initiatives include Hewlett Packard. For many years the company has offered a take-back service on printer cartridges and so on, but following the lead of the corporation's US arm, a fee based take-back scheme for all IT equipment is now in place in the UK. While critics argue this service should be free, Hewlett-Packard extends its service, which includes assessment for recycling, reuse or donation of all equipment, to include products manufactured by other companies, as well as its own.

Part of the thinking behind WEEED is that the application of pressure on manufacturers - to pay for the costs of removing and safely disposing of hazardous substances from waste electrical and electronic equipment - will serve as an incentive to avoid using them at all. And sure enough, not too far down the line, there are plans for a Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS), which will ban the use of substances including lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, PBBs and PBDEs, and an Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (EEE), which seeks to apply green innovation and design to electrical and electronic products across their life-cycle.

With WEEED and these further directives in mind, the government has set up a free pilot scheme, Environwise. Businesses can benefit from the services of specialist design consultants who will spend a full day on site, assessing design options to help producers of electrical and electronic equipment comply with the forthcoming legislation.

Catastrophe looms

It would be all too easy to wax lyrical about the powers that be in Brussels interfering with British industry in environmental issues. While there are important concerns to be argued out before WEEED goes through, these are essentially short term.

Ultimately, this is a global issue, demanding a halt to the waste disposal methods this country has hitherto pursued. If we don't all accept responsibility and look to the long term, we'll have a far greater and more costly catastrophe on our hands.

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