Select Committee on European Scrutiny Twenty-Fourth Report


COM(01) 315

Amended draft Directive on waste from electrical and electronic equipment.


Common Position of the Council on draft Directive on waste from electrical and electronic equipment.


Legal base:Article 175 EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Document originated:(a) 6 June 2001
Forwarded to Council: (a) 7 June 2001
Deposited in Parliament:  (a) 25 June 2001
Department:Trade and Industry
Basis of consideration: (a) EM of 11 July 2001
(b) EM of 15 March 2002
Previous consideration:None; but see (21540) 10802/00: HC 23-xxix (1999-2000), paragraph 11 (15 November 2000) and HC 28-i (2000-01), paragraph 1 (13 December 2000)
To be discussed in Council: See paragraph 1.17 below
Committee's assessment:Politically important
Committee's decision:Not cleared; further information requested


  4.1  Waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was identified in the Community's Fifth Environmental Action Programme[3] as one of the target areas for prevention, recovery and safe disposal. According to the Commission, there are a number of reasons for this. First, components tend to include heavy metals and other hazardous substances, such as halogens, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), brominated flame retardants, and asbestos and arsenic. Since more than 90% of WEEE is landfilled, incinerated or recovered without any pre-treatment, it accounts for a large proportion of the hazardous materials in the waste stream. Secondly, the decreasing life-span of much of the equipment has led to a rapid growth of WEEE. Thirdly, the proliferation of national measures in this area has hampered the effectiveness of national recycling policies; resulted in substantial disparities in the financial burdens for economic operators; and had implications for trade in electrical and electronic equipment.

  4.2  The Commission therefore brought forward in June 2000 two proposals. One of these, on which we are reporting separately, sought to harmonise the rules on the restriction of the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment. The other, dealt with in the documents discussed here, aimed to reduce the amount of such waste from electrical equipment[4], and to encourage its recycling and recovery. In order to achieve this, it suggested:

  • that producers should take financial responsibility for certain phases of the waste management of their products, thereby creating an economic incentive for them to adapt product design to the prerequisites of sound waste management;

  • that separate collection of WEEE should be ensured through appropriate systems;

  • that producers should set up appropriate systems for the improved treatment and reuse/recycling of WEEE; and

  • that adequate information should be provided to consumers about the systems and their role in it.

  4.3  More specifically, it proposed that:

  • Member States should be required to ensure that systems are set up so that final holders and distributors can return waste from private households free of charge, and should aim to achieve by 31 December 2005 an annual collection target from households of 4 kg per head;

  • producers should be required to set up treatment systems of a specified standard using authorised recyclers and treatment operators;

  • re-use, recycling and recovery targets should be set for certain categories of electrical waste, to be achieved by 31 December 2005;

  • producers should be required to meet, within five years of the Directive coming into force, the costs of collecting electrical waste from central collection points, and the treatment, recovery and environmentally-sound disposal of end-of-life equipment from households;

  • Member States should be required to ensure that the public is informed about collection systems and their role in contributing to the recovery of WEEE; and

  • producers should be required to provide information to treatment facilities and recyclers to identify the components and materials and the location of dangerous substances within the equipment.

  4.4  The Commission put the net cost of the collecting and re-using/recycling requirements for household WEEE as between 500 million and 900 million euros a year, though these figures assumed that Member States were not already undertaking their own initiatives, and made no allowance for such factors as economies of scale. These figures contrasted with those for the UK provided by the Government in an initial Regulatory Impact Assessment, which suggested that the annual costs might lie between £540 and £545 million, of which £500 million would arise from the arrangements for separate collection. There would also be one-off costs of between £7.3 and £8.6 million. More generally, the Government considered the proposal to be in line with its national waste strategies, and with the voluntary collection schemes already operated by a number of the sectors concerned. As a consequence, it believed that the 4 kg per head collection target was probably already exceeded in the UK, though it also identified a number of issues of potential concern, notably that some of the other provisions might be difficult and costly to implement.

  4.5  In their Report of 15 November 2000, our predecessors commented that these were obviously potentially significant proposals on which considerable uncertainties arose as to the relative costs and benefits, and they said that they would not be able to take a view on them until they had seen an updated Regulatory Impact Assessment. This was provided on 7 December 2000, together with an indication of the changes made to the proposal - principally a shortening of the time allowed for implementation - as a result of subsequent negotiations in Brussels. However, it was clear from the Assessment that it was proving difficult to refine the earlier cost estimates, and, as a consequence, our predecessors decided on 13 December 2000 to recommend the proposals for debate in European Standing Committee C, together with the complementary proposals on the use of hazardous substances in electrical equipment. That debate took place on 28 March 2001[5].

The current documents

  4.6  We next received a short unsigned Explanatory Memorandum of 11 July 2001 from the Department of Trade and Industry, prompted by the amendments suggested by the Commission (document (a)) following the European Parliament's first reading on 15 May 2001. According to the Explanatory Memorandum, some of the Parliament's amendments accepted by the Commission had been included in the Common Position reached by the Environment Council on 7 June 2001, but a substantial number had not. There was therefore likely to be disagreement between the Council and the Parliament, leading to a second reading by the Parliament, and possibly involving the conciliation process. The Explanatory Memorandum added that the Common Position text was currently being examined by jurists/linguists, and was expected to be finalised "after the summer". At that point, the Department would be submitting a full Explanatory Memorandum and revised Regulatory Impact Assessment.

  4.7  We have now received - some eight months later - an Explanatory Memorandum of 15 March 2002 from the Minister of State for Industry and Energy at the Department of Trade and Industry (Mr Brian Wilson), together with a partial Regulatory Impact Assessment dealing with the Common Position (though we have not been given a copy of the Common Position text itself). According to the Explanatory Memorandum, the main changes, as compared with the earlier versions of the proposal, would (i) allow retailers more flexibility in meeting their obligations to take back old goods when supplying a replacement, (ii) enable Member States to require retailers not only to meet the costs of collecting household WEEE after it has been delivered to a central collection point, but also to fund collection from individual households, and (iii) require existing producers to fund, on a collective and proportional basis, the disposal of "orphan" products whose producer no longer exists. There would also be a number of changes in the dates by which various of the provisions would have to be implemented. The effect of these is difficult to assess, as, in some cases, a fixed date has been replaced by one linked to the entry into force of the Directive, which is of course still uncertain. In general, however, the time allowed for implementation appears to have been shortened as compared with the original proposal.

  4.8  The Regulatory Impact Assessment provides a detailed up-date survey of the information previously supplied, and in particular seeks to assess the likely costs of separate collection, treatment and recovery under four different scenarios, depending upon the assumptions made about the extent to which the requirements in the Directive would alter existing patterns of activity within the UK.

  4.9  In the case of collection, it points out that around 475,000 tonnes of household goods are discarded annually, of which about two-thirds is either taken to civic amenity sites by householders, collected by local authorities, or collected by retailers and recycling companies: of that latter quantity about 80% comprises large white goods (ie. refrigerators, cookers and washing machines). The remaining discarded appliances were either re-used by a third party, such as a charity, or disposed of as ordinary household waste. The Assessment assumes that the current, well-established collection routes for large household appliances will continue, and that the main effect of the Directive will be to increase awareness, and hence the quantities separately collected, leading to increased costs of just over £10 million a year for such appliances. Consequently, the main impact of the proposal will be on non-white goods, such as televisions and PCs, of which only about 20% are at present separately collected. The cost in future will depend upon whether this is done by kerb-side collection, retailer collection on delivery, or in-store take-back, and on the assumption made about the extent to which the quantities involved will increase. However, overall the Assessment suggests that the additional costs, including the £10 million for white goods, could be between £23 million and £91 million.

  4.10  As regards treatment, the Assessment points out that very little WEEE is treated at present, with the exception of refrigerators, which are the subject of a separate regulation relating to ozone-depleting substances. It says that, to the extent that additional costs will arise as a result of this proposal, they will relate to labour and to the capital outlay needed to establish separate sites. However, the Assessment also suggests that, in the latter case, dismantlers may be able to use the facilities required to comply with another Directive on end-of-life vehicles, and that the main element will arise on labour. Again depending upon the assumptions made about the quantities involved, it is suggested that the costs could be between £86 million and £174 million.

  4.11  According to the Assessment, the costs of meeting the various recovery targets laid down in the proposal will depend upon, not only the increased uptake, but also the equipment in question, given that large household appliances have significant quantities of metals, whereas the smaller kinds tend to involve plastics and glass. Here, the additional costs involved are estimated as ranging from £47 million to £91 million.

  4.12  Taking all these different elements together, and including also the costs of providing information to users about the return and collection systems available to them, the Assessment suggests that the overall costs of the measure could be anything from £191 million to £391 million. It also points out that these figures are on the one hand high compared with the Commission's estimates for the Community as a whole (which, on the basis of the figures in paragraph 1.4 above, would imply costs in the UK of between £51 million and £92 million), but on the other hand low in relation to those of the industry (which the Assessment suggests under-estimates the extent to which the Directive would lead to changes in existing collection patterns). The Assessment also highlights the fact that the figures provided in the previous Assessment put the costs of separate collection as high as £500 million, largely because - unlike the Common Position text - it offered retailers no alternative to taking goods back in-store.

  4.13  Finally, the Assessment also seeks to identify the benefits from the proposal. It says that these are in fact likely to be limited by the existence of other environmental legislation, which also seeks to reduce the environmental impact of landfill and waste incineration, and by the costs which some waste management systems themselves impose. However, on the basis that the Directive could lead to the avoidance of between 133,000 and 339,000 tonnes of landfill, it suggests that this would produce in 2005 benefits ranging from £2 million to £5.1 million.


  4.14  Whilst we are grateful to the Minister for his Explanatory Memorandum and the very full Regulatory Impact Assessment attached to it, we nevertheless have a number of comments.

  4.15  First, in procedural terms, we would have found it helpful to have been sent a copy of the Common Position text, and we also find it hard to see why a Regulatory Impact Assessment originally promised last summer should have taken so long to complete.

  4.16  Our main concerns, however, relate to the substance of the proposals, where the information now provided amply vindicates the reservations expressed by our predecessors. In particular, we have noted not only the very wide spread in the Government's own figures, but also the considerable difference between these and the industry's estimates. Whilst we recognise that there will inevitably be uncertainties over the costs of proposals of this kind, we find these differences disturbing. Moreover, even the lower cost estimates appear to be considerably in excess of what the Assessment itself describes as the "limited" environmental benefits.

  4.17  Since the Minister has said that the Government supports the Common Position text, we would like him to provide a more convincing justification for this in the light of the relative costs and benefits, and in particular to assure us that the provisions on treatment will not give rise to the sort of capacity problems which appear to have arisen with refrigerators as a result of the measures adopted to reduce ozone- depleting substances. We would also be glad if he would keep us informed of developments in the light of the European Parliament's second reading. In the meantime, we are not clearing these two documents.

3   OJ No. C 138, 17.5.93. Back

4  Defined for this purpose as large and small household appliances; IT and telecommunications equipment; consumer and lighting equipment; electrical and electronic goods; toys; certain medical equipment systems; monitoring and control instruments; and automatic dispensers. Back

5   Official Report, European Standing Committee C, 28 March 2001 Back

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