16 February 2014

Can WEEE do better?

WEEE is 'Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment', and the WEEE Directive is European-wide regulation aiming to help reduce the amount of waste from electrical goods ('eWaste'), recently 'recast'.  Although simple in principle (don't send electricals to landfill), it's a highly complex area.  I wanted to explore how the Directive supports (or otherwise) the need to consume less, and encourage reuse.

***N.B. I'm no expert on this area, so if anyone is able to correct my interpretation of the WEEE Directive, please do so via the comments***

The relevant parts of the Directive for this blog are:
  • WEEE is measured by weight
  • WEEE is categorised, and reported separately.  So, '1 - Large Household Appliances' (e.g. a washing machine) are tracked separately to '3 - IT and Telecommunications Equipment' (e.g. a laptop)
  • Until Dec 2015, at least 4kg (or average of last three years if greater) of WEEE per inhabitant of each member state must be collected (UK exceeded this).  After this, the collection rate is a % of the total average annual weight of new electrical products placed onto the market during the three preceding years
  • The three main collection mechanisms for WEEE are reported separately:
    • via a DCF (Designated Collection Facility), e.g. Local Authority
    • via a PCS (Producer Compliance Scheme)
    • via a AATF (Approved Authorised Treatment Facility)
  • In 'Article 4' there is a need to consider ecoDesign principles, such that producers (manufacturers) do not inhibit the re-use of their products

Measuring WEEE by weight

I recently bought a new TV, after my old one (a Sony 28" CRT TV (KV-28LS35U)) was on its last legs (purchased in 2001).  It weighed 43Kg.

My Old TV - passed onto someone else via Freecycle

My new (A+ energy rated) LED TV weighs 14.3Kg, even though it has a 42" screen.  The same thing is of course happening with lots of technology, old computer CRT monitors with separate desktops, being replaced in homes by iPads, etc.  There are two implications of this to me:
  • As less CRT TVs/monitors end-up in landfill (one assumes there is only a small proportion still in-use still to be replaced), we should start to see the absolute weight of annual WEEE in some categories reduce.  This should not be seen as a success of the circular economy, but just a natural consequence as new, lighter technology is replaced.
  • Tracking absolute numbers of devices provides significant additional insight, albeit an overhead to record.

Targets of WEEE as % of EEE

To combat the 'lightweighting' of technology, the WEEE Directive will now have targets which are relative to the amount of new electrical equipment (EEE) entering the market.  Sounds sensible, and much better than an absolute weight target.  But:
  • Where's the incentive for a manufacturer to explore its business model and move away from selling as many products as possible, and perhaps derive revenues from services, or experiences? 
Collection methods

I couldn't see anywhere in the WEEE Directive where there was a target to increase the relative use of PCS (Producer Compliance Schemes), compared to say the local authority.  This might be a missed oportunity, as putting the logistical burden as well as financial burden for taking-back used products onto the manufacturer may encourage innovation, e.g. designing for re-use, refurbishment, or even a business model where the product is leased between many users.

Could WEEE encourage consumption?

My hypothesis is that as WEEE becomes better understood by consumers, and accepted that it's well managed (e.g. treatment of hazardous waste, and export restrictions), consumers may buy more electrical devices guilt-free, not less.  This will be further enhanced by producers interrogating their supply chains to eradicate use of conflict minerals, for example.  Without suitable controls, lack of targets to reduce absolute numbers of devices, nor business models which don't rely on selling products, it may be difficult for a step-change absolute reduction to occur.  And will consumers with an environmentally conscientious mind shy away from Freecycle and the potential extended life of products a second owner could offer, if they feel WEEE manages all their concerns?

Competition versus collaboration

I'm not a manufacturer, but I'd imagine if I was, as WEEE targets/fines increase, I'd want to 'beat' my competitor.  There's nothing like competition to drive a bit of innovation.  Unless of course it's collaboration.  Imagine if there was some sophistication within WEEE where designers were incentivsed to not only produce devices which were easy to dismantle, repair and reuse, but also where common parts were shared to support the particular sector's sustainability ambitions overall.

What I'd like to see
  • Regulation for manufacturers (and retailers) to be more accountable for the practicalities of dealing with their WEEE, not just the cost; that should drive innovation in reverse logistics (perhaps with industry collaboration), as well as the design of the product itself
  • Targets which address the absolute quantity of EEE entering the market, not just the relative amount which gets managed as WEEE
  • All devices designed for repair, upgrade, reuse and dismantling
  • Regulation for longer warranties, driving durability in design


  1. For me, it's the "Marked parts" item that you touh on that's really important. If all parts were labelled with useful information for their recycling (e.g. the composition of materials, much like the automotive industry already does), then we'd be setting ourselves up for some real gains in the future, once this approach has saturated the markets. It'll take time, but it has to start somewhere

  2. Well done on passing your old television on via Freecycle. I often hear that using an inefficient product like that is "bad" for the environment, but surely if the person who now owns this was alternatively going to buy a new product, and put this in landfill, then the environment suffers twice (disposal of old, and building of new). Is there any way that WEEE could take this into account as a re-used product? Maybe organisations like Freecycle could track the numbers of electrical products passing through their hands?