A mountain of electrical and electronic waste is building up throughout Europe. Every consumer generates on average 16 kilograms of this waste a year, making six million tonnes each year Europe-wide. This is a huge waste of resources. It is also a major environmental hazard: electrical appliances and electronic equipment contain highly toxic heavy metals and organic pollutants. Under new EU laws, manufacturers will now have to pay for the collection and disposal of these goods.
Millions of old toasters, PCs, cookers, radios and TVs make up the fastest growing stream of waste in the EU - whether they are taken to a municipal tip, dumped in a field or simply thrown in the dustbin at the end of their short lives.
In December 2002 the European Parliament approved two new directives designed to tackle the growing heap of electroscrap. MEPs insisted on tightening up the draft legislation, above all by making sure that individual producers pay the cost of processing waste generated by their own products. However, consumers too will have new responsibilities.
The producer pays
Thanks to Parliament, Member States must ensure that individual producers pay the cost of the collection, recovery and recycling of electronic and electrical waste generated by their own products. This means, for example, that consumers will be able to deposit old electrical appliances free of charge at collection facilities in their neighbourhood. Producers must bear the cost of running these collection points as well as subsequent recycling or recovery costs. However, they will be able to choose between managing their own facilities or joining collective schemes.
The cost of collecting products put on sale up to thirty months after the directive takes effect ("historical waste") will be shared between producers still in existence when the waste disposal costs arise, as demanded by Parliament. Producers will contribute to the costs in proportion to their share of the market for each type of equipment.
When manufacturers or importers of electrical goods have gone bankrupt or are untraceable, no-one is left to take direct responsibility for their waste appliances. To pay for the collection and disposal of these "orphan products", Parliament insisted on up-front guarantees from producers so that any costs arising from such waste do not fall on remaining producers or on society at large. These guarantees can take the form of a recycling insurance, a frozen bank account or a contribution to a scheme for funding the management of this waste.
Parliament made sure producers will not be able to get round recycling rules through the design of their products, for example by creating products with "clever chips" so that they cannot be recycled (e.g. ink cartridges for printers). In addition, strict rules ensuring that appliances are marked to identify the producer were introduced at MEPs' insistence, because labelling is the key to ensuring that the system works. Heavy metals and toxic flame retardants used in the manufacture of appliances are to be banned completely from July 2006.
Binding target for waste collection
Member States must ensure that an average of at least four kilograms of electrical and electronic waste per inhabitant per year is collected from private households by the end of 2006. This figure is binding, rather than voluntary, only because of pressure from Parliament. A new mandatory target will be laid down by the end of 2008.
Consumers must also shoulder their share of responsibility for the products they buy: they will be banned from disposing of electrical and electronic equipment by mixing it in with ordinary household refuse.
Member States must take measures to enforce all these arrangements. They will be able to impose penalties on anyone who flouts the new rules - producers and consumers alike.
Lastly, it is worth underlining that organisations representing industry, as well as consumer and environmental bodies, gave strong public backing to Parliament's ultimately successful demands for individual producers to pay for collection and recycling costs and for producers to provide up-front guarantees to deal with the problem of orphan waste.