WEEE! Unrealistic Goals?

Europe may be overreaching with its environmental compliance laws. Don’t get me wrong. I believe state, federal, and international environmental regulations are good. Without them, do you really think recycling programs would have created themselves or organizations would have willingly stopped producing devices containing harmful substances?

But then a story in The Economist reminded me of the inherent difficulties in managing green rules, particularly Europe’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. The Economist article claims:

    WEEE is the fastest growing garbage problem in Europe… Annual generation of unwanted TVs, computers, mobile phones, kettles, refrigerators and the like, far outstrips the ability to collect and recycle it. By 2020 Europeans will be creating more than 12 million tonnes [sic] annually.

WEEE, which has been in force since early 2003, restricts the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (banning things like lead, mercury, and cadmium) and ensures the creation of collection schemes that allow consumers to return their used e-waste free of charge, according to the European Commission.

By the EC’s own estimates, only one-third of the region’s electrical and electronic waste is reported as separately collected and appropriately treated, despite the legislation. As the EC notes on its Website:

    A part of the other two thirds is potentially still going to landfills and to sub-standard treatment sites in or outside the European Union. The collection target of 4 kilograms per person per year does not properly reflect the amount of WEEE arising in individual Member States. Illegal trade of electrical and electronic waste to non-EU countries continues to be identified at EU borders.

Astounding isn’t it? Even Europe — where many member countries have incredibly progressive stances on environmental protection, recycling, and renewable energy — can’t get a handle on its own idealistic ambitions.

As if that weren’t enough, the European Council will temper near-term collection targets. In February, the European Parliament initially proposed a 2012 e-waste collection target of the greater of either the existing level of e-waste per inhabitant (4kg) or the same weight as in 2010; by 2016 that number, the parliament expects, could climb to 85 percent of the e-waste produced, according to an article in the Green IT Review. However, in March, the European Council, which must weigh in on legislation, reduced the proposed 2016 target from 85 percent to 45 percent, and it's moving the 2020 target to 65 percent, according to the article.

On one hand, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that rules like this only work if people and companies actually follow them, or if a stern enforcement authority “compels” compliance.

There seems to be some degree of enforcement, and wrongdoers are coming before tribunals for breaking the law. A few weeks ago, eWEEK Europe UK reported that 14 defendants appeared in a British court and pleaded not guilty or entered “no plea” responses to charges of illegally exporting electrical waste from the UK to developing countries. The Website said the defendants were a mix of companies and private individuals. While the accused are slated to return to court in October, I did raise my skeptical eyebrows and ask: For every person caught, how many get away with it?

Flipping the coin, I can't totally blame the enforcement gap as the sole culprit in missing take-back targets. Clearly, there has not been enough economic motivation to add teeth to the feel-good, do-good, protect-the-planet regulations. If consumers don't have to pay for these services, and companies cry about the hefty price tags associated with following various versions of these laws worldwide, legislation will continue to go only so far. It seems to me, now's the time for business and government to reexamine the financial models and come up with realistic goals.

For sure, social good doesn't have to mean crafting totally non-profitable models. There are plenty of opportunities to cash in while addressing the bigger issue of collecting what we’ve made, used, and no longer need.

British recycling firm Sunersol provides an example. The company began trading in the fourth quarter of 2010 and had secured in excess of 20,000 tons of WEEE through contracts before its official launch, noted a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post. So far, it has created 40 new jobs and plans to offer dozens more in the near future.

This all raises the obvious question: Can we save the planet, make products safer, and still live up to, not just regulated ideals, but moral ones?

19 comments on “WEEE! Unrealistic Goals?

  1. Parser
    May 3, 2011

    Moral is a very high call. Even being just simply educated and socially responsible is a lot to ask. Those types of manners have to be thought very early in life, but we are not able to do it. There will always be a part of population, which is not adhering to society. Financial incentives are the way to achieve sufficiently high level of recycling. On other hand illegal businesses should be prosecuted, but it seems funny to done under recycling law.

  2. jbond
    May 3, 2011

    You are absolutely correct on the moral issue. If everybody had ethics and morals, the world would be in a utopian state. These values are supposed to be taught at an early age. It seems like society has grown to a “me first” attitude. There will always be law breakers, no matter what the rules are. The best incentive to help promote recycling is still financially. This is particularly true with the larger corporations that have much more to gain and lose. Financial incentives would help the general population also, but then you will always get those law breakers that will circumvent the laws for financial gains.

  3. Ariella
    May 3, 2011

    I agree with Parser that financial incentives are likely to be more effective than appealing to people's sense of social responsibility.  Though people tend to say they are concerned, they tend to act in accordance with their own self-interest.  That is something that people have to understand when marketing something on the basis of its “green” qualities.  See

  4. tioluwa
    May 3, 2011

    I guess we have brought up two solutions to the problem, a short term one and a long term one and i'm sure we know which is more effective.

    Financial incentives will work if it pays enough, but building the proper mindset of social responsibility will eliminate the need for financial incentives and cause a good number of people to naturally do the right thing.

    However, the financial incentives is easier that trying to chagne the mind of a whole nation.

  5. Hardcore
    May 3, 2011

    I had to deal with both WEEE and RoSH compliance for a large UK retailer, and it was clear from the start that it was designed by politicians.

    Unrealistically complex requirements for testing and validating materials, slipping enforcement dates plus companies (particularly Asian) that had no intention what so ever for complying with the requirements.

    Even today there are significant amounts of goods entering Europe that do not comply with RoSH, this in turn has a significant impact on the WEEE requirements, specifically because it forces a requirement for clean-up companies to deal with substances that should already have been removed from the system (I.E Lead Mercury Hex-chromium)

    Even worse there are European importers actively importing equipment that never has and still does not comply with RoSH, these importers seem to act with complete impunity as regards the law and as a result are able to gain a significant advantage over other importers that are trying to comply with the requirements.

    The abusers of the system can save several thousand US$ per shipment of goods, such is the additional cost of getting goods tested by SGS or one of the other large test houses to ensure compliance with RoSH.

    Once these goods are 'in' Europe and at the retailer/distributor it can be difficult to dispose of them under the legal WEEE requirements because they are already contaminated prior to use, this in-turn opens up a strong black market in disposal of such products, when they finally reach EOL.

    China already closed the loophole of importing materials for recycling (nearly 6 years ago). The requirements in China go so far as to cover brand new goods that were shipped out of a factory but were later found to be defective, for such goods to re-enter China, a deposit is required to be paid to the customs and excises department. Take longer than 30 days to re-work the goods and you may loose the deposit as well as having additional penalties being placed on the importing company.

    Unfortunately material recycling has in part been moved to Hong Kong (you do not need to be a 3rd World country to become a dumping ground for E-waste)

    the SAR government keep talking about sorting the problems out, but for now the law is still lax.

  6. Anand
    May 4, 2011

    “For sure, social good doesn't have to mean crafting totally non-profitable models.”


     I totally agree with you on this point. By implementing Social good using non-profitable models we are not only making sure that the program is success but also there are other commerical benefits like creation of job. I hope everyone will try to implement this model.

  7. Jennifer Baljko
    May 4, 2011

    Hi and thanks for the posts. Generally, I think we – or at least most of us here on EBN –  concede that financial incentives outweigh social ethics when it comes to any sort of environmental protection.

    But, to get us back on point, legislation – which usually takes seed when constituents voice some opinion to lawmakers – can be ineffective if it's designed in an idealistic echo chamber without realistic goals and honest feedback from communities and organizations most directly involved. As Hardcore points out in his comments, WEEE provides an example of how a good idea can quickly go off course. As we've seen with WEEE, maybe it's time to look at  the convergence of complex requirements, conflicting standards, random enforcement, short-sighted regional implementation goals, a lack of deep financial understanding, and an unstoppable global demand for the latest and greatest consumer devices. It seems as though industry and goverments globally have a decade's worth of experience to assess as it plans future actions.

    So the questions is: Where do we go from here? What's next? Following a Chinese example? Creating a global organization to design universal standards like we've seen with wirless networking? What other innovative ideas could bring greater alignment?

  8. Susan Fourtané
    May 4, 2011

    I agree, Parser.

    Having incentives to recycle should start always with each individual and, as you say, at an early age. The benefits of recycling should be taught by the parents to their children and then choose a schoolm where recycling is promoted and supported. 

    Those kids will be the future of the planet, will have responsible companies and be responsible employees and citizens. There is not much you can do with the bad apples of today. 

    Ethics implies that each citizen does what is environmentally right not only for himself but also for the planet. We ask businesses to recycle more and to be more environmentally friendly but do we all do what we need to do to help recycling? 


  9. Hardcore
    May 4, 2011

    Hi Jennifer,

    Whilst the Chinese government has put into place fairly strong anti-dumping regulations to cover 'recyclable' materials from other countries being dumped back into China, the Chinese internal WEEE systems are still weak.

    Unfortunately it is still far to easy and profitable for individuals to re-cycle scrap electronic parts (remembering of course that China has its own massive consumer market).Much of the high end scrap ends up at chop shops, where the  PCB's are sliced in such a way as to allow the most expensive chips to be collected and sold off by the K.g.

    In most major cities in China one can find areas where these recycled chips are sold on, in some cases  memory chips are manually desoldered, cleaned up then sold back into the  supply chain, but at the 'virgin' component level.

    The remaining scrap is burnt at night, by individual recyclers in an attempt to extract the copper and other materials, producing dense clouds of toxic smoke.

    This is by no means a unique situation… recently one of the major government  waste disposal companies was caught , reducing hte gas feed to re-combust the smoke produced by the initial combustion, some one had worked out they could maximize profit by dumping primary smoke late at night when it was dark, unfortunately the carcinogens were not correctly processed, (with fairly predictable results… people in the area round the government incinerator started getting sick)

    So whilst the Chinese government has a fairly firm grip on waste materials entering into China, the disposal systems  and methods within the country are still a mess.



  10. Parser
    May 5, 2011

    Standards have their own benefits of easy accommodation for many products, but unfortunately they stifle initiatives and innovations. As simple example at the beginning of the internet, where AOL was the pioneer and first on the market, there was a big hoopla about busy signal using phone line modems. AOL under pressure of public opinion bought massive number of modems and an interesting thing happened. People were afraid that labs were working on high-speed lines like DSL and Cable modems and they got to panic. They went to high court to stop development because they claim only rich would be able to buy it and it would put pressure on middle-income families. The judge said no.

    Several decades later we see that nobody is using phone modems anymore. If we stopped scientific research, new ideas and innovations the life would not be worth living. It is not from buyer’s perspective it is form the designer’s perspective. There are so many examples that only progress keeps this world going. I cannot imagine delivery of goods without roads, good trucks, trains and airplanes and without communication tools to 7 billion people. That entire infrastructure has to be improved to be able to serve 10 billion people in not that far away future. Coming back to recycling. An interesting case is with illegal sales to third word countries of discarded goods due to lack of recycling laws and infrastructure in those countries. A good but costly solution to this is to pay upfront a time of purchase for recycling. There are quite a few programs like that and they need to be spread. Then the recycling centers would pay back for recycling. Beside this, we would have to pay for new recycling technology and for teaching generations discipline of recycle. 

  11. Nemos
    May 5, 2011

    Even if the goals are too hard for companies to be followed (I don't believe WEEE rules are unrealistic) they must be followed.   The article states a lot of numbers, but I didn't see to mention how unhealthy is to use, for instance, Lead for soldering and how dangerous is to expose yourself   for a long time using this kind of materials.

  12. Nemos
    May 5, 2011

    “me first” attitude , you mean selfish ?

    I agree with the “ There will always be law breakers, no matter what the rules are.”

    but I disagree with the The  financially incentive.  

  13. itguyphil
    May 5, 2011


    Laws are meant to be broken. That's why we have law enforcement.

  14. Jennifer Baljko
    May 6, 2011

    Hardcore – Thanks for the inside track on China's inbound WEEE and domestic recycling  hurdles. How depressing to read about this dark side. It such a huge task – sometimes I think we go one step forward, and two backwards.


  15. Jennifer Baljko
    May 6, 2011

    Parser – I like your suggestion.

    “..i nteresting case is with illegal sales to third word countries of discarded goods due to lack of recycling laws and infrastructure in those countries. A good but costly solution to this is to pay upfront a time of purchase for recycling. There are quite a few programs like that and they need to be spread. Then the recycling centers would pay back for recycling”

    Do you know where some of these programs are currently in place? Would like to  check them out.


  16. Parser
    May 6, 2011

    Jennifer Baljko 

    Simple example is in bottles recycling. See:

    I am sure there are more. Apple is doing a lot about battery and computers recycling. However I am not sure how it is organized. When I bought a new MacBook in March year ago I got a free FedEx number for two computers to return that I could recycle back to Apple. I did with one I had, yes with lithium batteries inside. I believe I paid for it the purchase.

    (In my previous comment should have written “… to pay upfront at the time of purchase … “) 


  17. Jennifer Baljko
    May 6, 2011

    Thanks, Parser. I'll check out the links and examples you mention. Maybe a topic worth exploring for a follow-up post. Also going to look in hardcore's China info.

    Everyone, thanks again for the ongoing dialog

  18. Hardcore
    May 6, 2011

    It is like anything else in China, If someone can make an 10c recycling something in a dangerous fashion, then they will, its a bit like the news item last night in China, a sewer worker was recycling food and bread , then making it is to 'new' product so that he could sell it.

    Unfortunately the mentality in China is geared towards making money rather than the legalities of things, the sad thing is that a significant number of people do not seem to balk at the issue of poisoning their own comrades, A day spent reading Chinese press articles  regarding contaminated food, soon leads one to the conclusion that if they happily contaminate the food and water, why should recycling of electronics, plastics and metals be any different.

    This is the indifference that the government agencies are continually battling in an attempt to move China forward.


  19. prabhakar_deosthali
    May 12, 2011

    Can we have some kind of a traceability of ownership for e-products.  If we take the case of Automobiles, from the time a vehicle rolls out from the assembly line till it is declared as scrap its ownership is tracable and for anything from accident, use for criminal purpose, theft or illegal scrapping, it is the owner of that vehicle at that point in time who is held responsible. If similar traceability and responsibility is attached to all the e-products then there could be some check on how these products are disposed.  Any thoughts ?

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