Time for a WEEE change?

Whoever dreamt up the name of the WEEE directive clearly did not check with how it would go down in Britain. But it’s been a long time coming and the sounds of our sniggers have long since died away. In some quarters, they’ve been replaced with the sounds of gnashing of teeth.

First of all, let’s be clear: any attempt to encourage responsible recycling of waste electronic products is to be applauded. This, after all, is the intention of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive. The idea is that end of life products are separated into their constituent parts and usefully recycled.

But, as often happens with matters European, things aren’t that simple. The rules, such as they are, are implemented differently country by country. Belgium wants 39 different classes of IT waste accounted for whereas the UK settles for just two. WEEE is not a standard, it’s just an umbrella term under which countries can make their own decisions. IT companies which work across national boundaries (and that’s all of the big ones) waste man-years just to ensure their compliance with these sometimes pettifogging local regulations.

But who cares? These companies are rich enough to cope. Maybe. But what do they and their customers get out of WEEE? The answer seems to be, "not a lot". They have the cosy feeling that they’re doing the right thing by recycling. But they have no idea what happens next. There is a disconnect between the WEEE world and the manufacturers who are, increasingly, designing their products with easy recycling in mind. I think I’ve mentioned that Sun uses a lot of metal cases these days, and Hewlett Packard has cut its printer plastics from over a hundred to just five types. Both measures are intended to improve the reuse value of the materials.

Sadly, the chances are very high that when the plastics and metals are chopped up into tiny pieces, ready for re-use, they’ll all get mixed together thus destroying their inherent value. So, in the example of plastic, they get shoved into some low grade object like a park bench. Where’s the environmental gain in that? A wooden park bench, by contrast, is functional, good-looking and it contains sequestrated carbon.

Someone, somewhere, needs to find a way to separate plastics and metals more sensibly and make it easier (and more rewarding) for IT manufacturers to participate in WEEE recovery loop.

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