The European Union's Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive means that all organisations, including voluntary bodies, will be obliged to dispose of their electrics more carefully in future, writes Gary Flood.
Visitors to London's South Bank this April may have met the Weee man. He was pretty hard to miss, standing, as he does, seven metres high and weighing three tonnes. Weee stands for waste electrical and electronic equipment, and the Weee man is made up of the amount of junked electronic goods that the average UK citizen throws away in their lifetime - the equivalent of 160 mobile phones. It all mounts up: the UK as a whole tips the equivalent of 81 HMS Belfast warships into skips each year, according to the people behind the sculpture.
Electrical and electronic equipment, such as computers, servers, laser printers, mobile phones and all the rest of today's communications technology use a lot of components that contain carcinogens, including lead and arsenic, which pose serious health risks and environmental dangers. Just under a million tonnes of electronic waste, such as broken computer monitors and discarded mobile phones from both domestic and commercial sources, is discarded in the UK every year, a figure computer supplier Dell estimates is growing by 4 - 8 per cent a year.
Some of us are better global citizens than others, of course. The average US citizen uses 10KW of energy a year - more than 20 times the amount used by the average Indian, who consumes just 0.4 KW. The UK continues to lag behind Europe in taking positive green action: according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Austria recycles 65 per cent of its municipal waste, while the UK manages just 10 per cent.
Question of responsibility
The European Union has responded by bringing in the amusingly named but important Weee Directive, which is designed to make manufacturers and suppliers take more responsibility for taking away and recycling this material.
The vision of the Eurocrats is simple and compelling: make sure all electrical and electronic waste gets collected and processed, and that manufacturers provide responsible recycling services to minimise environmental side-effects. There are real health issues here. Cadmium is widely used as a stabiliser in the plastic compounds that form computer, monitor and printer shells, but it can cause serious damage to the kidneys and liver, and if it comes into contract with chlorine, as in ordinary household bleach, it becomes cadmium chloride, a nasty carcinogen. Other nasties include lead, mercury and powerful chemicals such as hexavalent chromium.
Today more than 90 per cent of the waste covered by the Weee Directive is put into landfill, incinerated or shredded without any pre-treatment or sorting.
Under the Directive, the UK will be expected to recycle up to 315,700 tonnes of electrical and electronic waste per year.To make this happen there's an element of financial incentive - there are targets to recover a percentage of what's currently being thrown out and find new lives for it, which could create new business opportunities for some companies.
But the devil is in the detail. There has been such little awareness of the Directive's consequences that the implementation date has been pushed back from this October to January 2006.
This move hasn't gone down well with those charities that are clued up on Weee. The Government's decision, says Temina Moledina of human rights charity One World, "is detrimental to the UK recycling movement because it underplays the urgency of recycling". One World used a company called Community Technology to collect an old computer, fax machine and printer for just £30 instead of the £75 per 15 minutes it says its local council wanted to charge. "Recycling our old electronic equipment is both environmentally sound and economically viable. The Weee delay must not put businesses and individuals off the recycling track," she adds.
The Meningitis Trust is also keen to see better handling of electronic waste. "Although we do not have a formal environmental policy, we are committed to disposing electronic equipment responsibly," says spokeswoman Julia Fenn. "Where possible, we make recycling an income source to help us fund our work across the board."
The charity's Recycle 4 Research scheme reclaims old equipment to break down and sell on to raise funds for a range of support services and research.
As for its own unwanted computer equipment, the trust uses a dedicated recycling company, Hemplan Recycling, which refurbishes to sell on where possible, and breaks waste down for spares when selling is not an option.
"We don't get any money for this, but neither does it cost us anything to get rid of old or broken kit," says Fenn.
The Weee postponement has given all of us, as consumers, more time to become prepared - but it also means all sorts of organisations need to start making plans for handling all that Weee. There are puzzles: under the Directive, it becomes the responsibility of the people that produced the material in the first place to recycle and manage it at the end of its life. The vendor is therefore responsible for its collection and processing.
But who made it? Most organisations would have sourced the kit from a reseller or other third party, involving a complicated supply chain. This has all yet to be worked out, and could be something of a legal quagmire.
It might also take a while to translate the law into action. Last September, a survey commissioned by Dell found that one-third of the 400 businesses it approached throw their old IT assets away, even though 27 per cent of the entire sample acknowledged they knew the environmental and legal consequences of disposing of old computer hardware incorrectly. "There does seem to be an education gap," says the company's global sustainable business director Pat Nathan. "More than a quarter of businesses surveyed that do not recycle said they do not know where to go."
Dell says it hands over hardware to recycling partners who break it down into components made from steel, aluminium, copper and plastic. These parts are then reused, minimising the need for raw materials in product manufacturing, or disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner, reducing the amount of material that goes into landfills.
Why does all this matter to UK non-profit organisations? The answer is a lot more than just your ethics as an organisation. The Directive has an impact on you as a purchaser of electronic equipment and also potentially represents an opportunity to you as a customer of such kit.
According to Elizabeth Shepherd, a partner in the environmental team of law firm Eversheds, "buying totally new equipment means that the supplier is now responsible for its disposal. But if an organisation is replacing like for like - 20 new PCs for 20 old PCs - then that's 'old' Weee, for which the organisation itself is responsible. But if you lease the equipment rather than buying it then you do not become responsible."
Charities could also materially benefit from the Directive. This view is summed up by David Edwards, trust director of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, a City body representing IT suppliers: "The Directive will provide a real opportunity to generate additional income for charities that can demonstrate a Weee-compliant model of refurbishing computers for use in developing countries," he says. "It will also make it more attractive for other organisations to donate their unwanted computers to such refurbishing charities."
Gerry Hackett, the managing director of a specialist organisation in IT waste management called RDC, agrees. "It is clearly going to be an attractive option for companies to donate their equipment as a way of meeting Weee," he says. "It would be one option, along with redeploying the IT back into other parts of their business, remarketing it to other firms or recycling it all themselves. These would also be considerations for large charities that have sourced a lot of their IT equipment, of course."
Shepherd thinks this could be a marketing opportunity for charities.
"They are ideally placed to discuss with local businesses, for instance," she says.
The onus is on charities sourcing new IT to discuss the Weee issue with their supplier. There is also an issue about when and where your own organisation will become liable. "Now's the time to make an audit of unwanted equipment," says Edwards. "Do the groundwork for making Weee-compliant plans for disposal as soon as the detail of the new regulation becomes clear."
And it's just possible that you could end up getting a lot of free electronics - but make sure you know how to dispose of them properly in turn. After all, it's up to all of us to cut Weee man down to size.
- When purchasing all computers, ask the company you're buying from about its Weee policy and if it has a recycling programme and uses environmentally friendly components
- Give IT equipment a second life by purchasing refurbished equipment.
Many charities already do this and there may be more opportunities, but make sure such material is still going to add value - there's no point using stuff that should have gone to IT heaven in the 1970s
- Minimise environmental damage. Leaving a monitor on at night, for example, uses a significant amount of electricity. Think about turning off monitors if you are in meetings or away for lunch. Implement a policy to save energy by turning them all off at the day end - this cuts your power bills and also prolongs the life of the machines
- Use power management features and cut down the amount of paper you print - try to do more on screen
- For more details of the Weee man project, go to www.thersa.org/projects/weee_man.asp.