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19 May 2011 12:05:56

Report calls for review of WEEE producer compliance

Following the publication of a report entitled "System Failure: the UK's harmful trade in electronic waste", the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an independent campaigning organisation, has called on the government to conduct a full review of the producer compliance scheme (PCS) system. The EIA also proposed that the government commission a review of existing contracts between local authorities and PCSs to ensure they have the means to carry out recycling, including scrutiny of sub-contracts between compliance schemes and service operators.

According to the independent lobbying group, the illegal disposal of e-waste is fast becoming big business.

Following an 18 month undercover operation, EIA investigators learned how traders frequently circumvent customs checks by mislabelling waste CRTs as working, using generic terms such as "personal effects" or "used household goods" on shipping documents and adopting a 'no questions asked' approach, knowingly offering untested CRTs for export and so shirking their legal duty of care.

While supporting the main thrust of the EIA's report, the WEEE industry's reaction to its proposals was muted.

"The report and its recommendations appear to capture some of the concerns and failings of the current UK WEEE system, known to many stakeholders operating across the industry. The corrective actions as suggested by the EIA are a small step in the right direction, but the problems with the WEEE system are far greater." Jeff Weeks of W E & E Consulting told RWW.

Derek Morgan, ICT lifecycle consultant went further. He said that while supporting some of the EIA's recommendations, in particular, a clamp down on the source of the problem, i.e. the civic amenity sites and councils that don’t maintain proper records or effectively vet and monitor their suppliers, "the recommendations did not make for a coherent whole".

According to Morgan: "Their findings illustrate systemic failures with regards the use of middle-men in waste transactions (including travelling buyers) within the UK. There is no mention of the missing approved exporter in the WEEE system or of the potential role of BSI PAS 141:2011.

"Instead, the EIA report asks the Environment Agency to toughen up on the local treatment facilities and to establish foreign facilities.

"This is misguided and harmful. In the UK we generally have a high standard of repairer/recycler and the use of these local capabilities should be the first priority, not the last resort. Simply, without a manufacturer exemption, charges on the bulk export of electronics should be levied to make local treatment preferable."

Morgan added: "Finally, let's not forget the elephant in the room, i.e. that 75% of EU e-waste and two-thirds of projected UK e-waste is currently 'unaccounted' for."

Andrew Morgan, EU GM for Sims Recycling Solutions, stated that one of the key challenges in the UK market is the sheer number of PCSs operating in competition with each other and without robust enforcement from government regulatory bodies.

“This competition is proving unhealthy with many of the schemes placing low cost ahead of the ability to demonstrate treatment to the appropriate standards and best available technology.

"This puts more pressure on the better schemes to equal these costs and down-channel stress on the recycling sector.

"The government has a responsibility to ensure that the implementation of regulations – in this case the WEEE Regulations – is followed up with appropriate enforcement action to safeguard the responsible recycling sector and protect the environment from pollution arising through the poor treatment of electronic equipment by substandard treatment operators."

Dr Philip Morton, CEO of Recycling Electrical Producers' Industry Consortium pointed out the WEEE audit trail is opaque.

"This ultimately means that the risk of leakage out of the system is increased," said Morton.

"The solution is twofold. Firstly, keep prosecuting the criminals, but equally importantly, fix the system so the illegal collectors can’t get hold of WEEE in the first place. This would be achieved by ensuring WEEE collectors hand over all waste to a PCS that needs it for its members and one which will audit the process."

The BBC's Panorama programme broadcast earlier this week, also highlighted the issue of illegal UK WEEE exports going to countries like Ghana and Nigeria.

Director of policy at the Environmental Services Association, Matthew Farrow said: "The illegal export of e-waste shown in Panorama is a stain on the UK's environmental record and undermines the operations of the vast majority of law-abiding waste management companies.

"Much tougher court sanctions on those who deliberately flout the law would be a good start."

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