On 1 July 2007 the obligations under the UK WEEE Regulations took effect. The new law required local authorities to quickly forge new links with producer compliance schemes in order to ensure that the waste electricals they collected were correctly dealt with. So one year on, how has the new system worked out? Duncan Simpson gives an overview.

The aims of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations are to improve recovery and recycling rates of electronic waste and reduce the amounts of this material currently going to landfill. To do this, the regulations place responsibilities on businesses that produce electronic equipment to take responsibility for its treatment and recovery, from the point of deposit by the consumer at a designated collection facility (DCF), usually at local authority civic amenity sites.

The first challenge for local authorities was to ensure their registration and qualification as DCFs through the Distributor Take Back Scheme (DTS). Against a tight timescale, this was achieved with all of the UK's local authorities applying for DCF status for their collection facilities. Next was the job of deciding which of the 22 WEEE producer compliance schemes to contract with in order to ensure that the collected WEEE would be correctly dealt with.

Although the WEEE Regulations have provided some initial teething problems for some, they have effectively transferred the responsibility for treating and recycling waste electronics away from local authorities and into the hands of those who initially produced it.

No one would claim that the introduction of the WEEE regulations has been trouble-free. Frustrating though they are, these difficulties should not blind us to the many benefits the regulations have brought in the relatively short time they have been in force.

Benefits of the WEEE regulations

The regulations have been delivered by a competitive producer responsibility regime at well below the government's original cost estimates of £500 million per annum. Competing schemes and increased economies of scale have ensured that the costs have reduced greatly from those prices seen previously for the recovery, recycling and treatment of fridges, freezers and CRTs/ monitors. In some cases the individual unit costs have reduced by 100 per cent.

The responsibility for recycling and treating WEEE has been shifted from consumers to those who produce it to the producers, importers and retailers. This is a significant change as it means that the majority of companies across the UK are now taking direct responsibility for the impact their goods have on the environment.

Regulatory regime
A regime is in place to prosecute those who try to avoid their legal responsibilities. A number of rogue WEEE reprocessors have already been removed from the system. Schemes have responsibilities to ensure the end markets and treatment centres with which they deal operate to high standards approved by the agency. Some schemes ensure that these end market reprocessors operate to their standards that, in some circumstances, can be higher than the standards set by the regulator.

Accountability and monitoring
Retailers, distributors and manufacturers are registered with the environment agencies and levels of WEEE monitored. These organisations should now all be on a public register and, therefore, open to public scrutiny. They also all carry a unique number, so that retailers can check if those down the supply chain from them are registered to comply with the regulations.

Electrical and electronic equipment
The regulations cover both business-to-consumer and business-to-business WEEE. This means that producers now have a responsibility to take back WEEE items at end of life from business customers, ensuring that all WEEE is covered by the regulations, not just what ends up in the domestic waste stream. Businesses have a requirement to detail in a plan what EEE items they place on the market, what steps they will take to inform their clients about the ultimate disposal of those goods and what route they can access to dispose of those items responsibility.

More detailed data on the production, manufacture, import and retailing of WEEE - as well as its recovery, collection and treatment - is known than ever before.

There is wider access to recycling facilities for WEEE and a better network for collection and processing. This is particularly important, as improving WEEE recycling figures count towards the UK achieving its increasing recycling and landfill diversion targets.

Glasgow campaign

A project to bring the new recycling services to the attention of householders was launched in Glasgow. The campaign included leaflets, a schools poster competition and face-to-face promotional activity, all supported by a 'WEEE recycle more' website.

The 'WEEE recycle more' poster competition was a great success, attracting 120 entries from six Glasgow schools. A judging panel from Wincanton, Scottish Waste Awareness Group (SWAG), Glasgow City Council and Valpak awarded the prize to two pupils from Hyndland Secondary School. Runners-up came from Drumchapel High and St Roch's Secondary. The winning design is now on display on the Easter Queenslie rescape bank.

Financial support for the Glasgow WEEE campaign came from Wincanton, a contractor in the Glasgow area. Experience gained from the Glasgow exercise will be used to inform future promotional activity with other local authorities partners.

Other activity

In addition, the recycle more team manned a promotional stand advertising the recycle more WEEE text back service. The team handed out WEEE flyers and magnets, designed to represent the five categories of WEEE. So long as business operates within the spirit of the rules, within the next 12 months the UK's compliance solution will be one of the simplest and most efficient in Europe.

Looking forward

So 2008 has seen the first full year of compliance for WEEE. The vast majority of EEE put on the market is now included in the regulations and the consumer no longer pays for the recovery and treatment of WEEE. Costs of collection, treatment and recycling have improved over the year and the consolidation of collections has meant more efficient prices for most in 2008.

The government is planning to promote WEEE recycling this year and in 2009. Many schemes will work to promote the use of the WEEE network by consumers to increase the levels of WEEE collected. It is important that even though retailers, producers and importers are legally obliged to recover WEEE, there is a responsibility on all of us to take some form of responsibility for the electrical and electronic items we now buy.

Duncan Simpson works for Valpak.