This summer marked the one-year anniversary of the EU WEEE Directive coming into force. Even after a year, awareness of the directive remains relatively low, particularly among small businesses. Graham Davy reflects on the past year and highlights the options available to achieve compliance.

For the uninitiated, the WEEE Directive was implemented last year to raise awareness about the need to recycle end-of-life electrical equipment. A year on, the directive has seen little in the way of coverage in the media and many affected parties are still unaware of the directive's implications, as well as the services and treatment facilities available to help achieve compliance.

The WEEE Directive has been put in place to stop the growing volume of electronic and electrical waste going to landfill by making businesses responsible for recycling their end-of-life equipment. It also forces manufacturers to consider more eco-friendly design, enabling the equipment to be easily recycled and reused. With electronic waste on the increase, IT disposal is of fundamental importance to businesses today.

With the drive towards a more eco-friendly world, companies who manage their WEEE effectively can only boost their corporate social responsibility (CSR). Many see environmentally friendly solutions as leading to significant costs and with end-user organisations striving to stretch already challenged bottom lines, the Directive can often be seen as extra red tape.

The majority of organisations now recycle their waste, but what if it's not considered waste? The key is to understand that there is often value in electrical and electronic waste. It is not financially beneficial to concentrate on just materials recycling; by adopting an asset management programme, companies can reduce costs whilst boosting CSR. Generally, anything with a plug or battery will contain elements that can be sold and, depending on the metals market companies, can make worthwhile returns from their WEEE.

Asset management is the process of re-marketing unwanted assets, redeploying functioning equipment, and optimising the value of redundant and surplus units. The UK government recently carried out a complete technology refresh project, which resulted in the reuse of 22,000 assets and a cost saving of over £4 million - clearly demonstrating that end-of-life equipment maintains some residual value.

With this in mind and the looming implementation of another piece of EU legislation - the Batteries Directive, coming into force in September - this time next year should see a much larger number of organisations taking on board the WEEE Directive and reducing their environmental impact. To make the directive work, businesses need to take a collective responsibility to ensure that the WEEE they produce does not end up in landfill.

Redundant equipment: have you got 'IT' covered?

 IT infrastructure is one of the biggest costs businesses can face, with many spending billions of pounds updating their IT equipment. No longer can PCs just be thrown into the skip; now, when disposing of WEEE, companies have a responsibility to dispose of this redundant electrical equipment in an environmentally sound manner.

Most organisations update their IT equipment on a biannual basis, yet by adopting a reuse policy companies can extend the life span of their computers by up to three times. When the computer can no longer be redeployed the units can then be recycled in line with the directive.
 
Generally there are three routes that can be taken in the asset management programme: refurbishment of the units, re-marketing of the units or the total destruction of the equipment. To achieve the most cost-effective programme, it's important to carry out a careful analysis of the equipment to define its condition and decide which one of these three routes would be most suitable.

By adopting the refurbishment option, equipment that would normally be thrown into the skip can be deployed back into the organisation. Generally companies update their senior staff's computers first. Sims suggests that their computers should be stripped, data-wiped, cleaned, loaded with latest software and redeployed back into the company's middle-ranking employees. The equipment is electronically data purged to ensure that any information previously held on the machines is removed. The units are then refurbished to 'as new' status, which can include the replacement of broken parts, cleaning of the system, reloading software and programs and setting the unit up to the organisation's standards.

Once the computers have been redeployed and the company no longer has an internal reuse need for the equipment, the units can then be re-marketed or reused. If the equipment itself has no residual value, it can stripped and the components or materials can then be sold. The average PC contains a number of elements that can be sold including copper, nickel, silver and zinc. This creates a way for companies to make money from their end-of-life equipment. The process, therefore, is an ideal way for organisations to reduce costs and boost CSR.

This option may not be suitable for some businesses who deal in highly sensitive data. For some organisations, from the moment their equipment leaves the building, they need to know that their hard drives have not found their way into the wrong hands. In this case, businesses should employ a thorough end-to-end security programme.

Full destruction of the equipment is the safest option for these organisations. This starts from the collection of the equipment. To ensure that no data can be leaked, the hard drives must be shredded. Sims, for example, reduces the equipment down to 6mm pieces and recovers the materials, ensuring that no information can ever be retrieved from the machine. Documentary proof of the destruction should also be available to the client.

With companies tightening their belts due to the credit crunch, an asset management programme is an ideal way for organisations to make the most of their redundant assets. A year into the Directive, there are some encouraging signs that end-user organisations are becoming more aware of the need for the environmentally appropriate disposal of redundant WEEE. The European Commission plans to carry out a review this year to evaluate the directive's impact and effectiveness in an ongoing education strategy.

As a nation, we need to work together to maximise the recycling of the WEEE we produce, especially when you consider it takes 1.8 tonnes of the earth's resources to produce just one new computer. This is a process of education and it must be stepped up to provide organisations with the knowledge to ensure the successful implementation of the directive and reduce the environmental impact of this fast-growing waste stream.

Graham Davy is global CEO of Sims Recycling Solutions, the UK's largest recycling company.

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