WEEE scheme favours big tech companies

Industry will tackle the 2m tonne electronic waste that is disposed of every year, with a new European Union directive. But producers and retailers are faced with increased costs, according to commentators.

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The European Union electronic waste directive, which finally came into effect this month, could add up to £30 to the cost of a PC, says analyst Gartner.

Delayed since its inception of August 2005 due to wrangling between government and suppliers, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) came into force on 1 July.

The WEEE directive requires businesses in EU member states, producers and retailers of IT equipment to dispose of unwanted and obsolete hardware in a regulated fashion. This waste is then collected for treatment and recovery to reduce the amount of electronic equipment in landfills. In this way, WEEE aims to reduce the amount of toxic and non-biodegradable waste disposed of by retailers and businesses.

The Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) estimates the UK throws away around 2 million tonnes of electronic waste every year. It is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and the EU.

Under the WEEE Directive, the responsibility for taking back unwanted equipment is put at the door of retailers and producers, where a 'producer' is a manufacturer or importer. From now on, all retailers selling electrical goods are required to offer customers a free in-store take-back service on a "like-for-like" basis, or help fund the expansion of a network of WEEE collection points.

By putting the responsibility on the electrical industry, it will also mean the eventual recycling of products will be considered at the design stage. By providing consumers with more options for returning old products, the hope is it will encourage the reuse of products and it will help create a valuable market in recycled materials.

When a business buys IT equipment from a producer then the payment for taking back of decommissioned IT systems can be negotiated as part of the supply contract. The business will pay, either directly for a specific service or indirectly through a general price rise.

But industry commentators have warned that, while being in aid of a noble cause, the implementation of the WEEE Directive looks to be over-complex and weighted in favour of large retailers and manufacturers. It may well increase the amount of IT equipment being thrown away because it will cost too much to repair. What's more, tor many original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and retailers the new regulations will be seen as a direct cost, and prices may rise as a result. This price hike could drive many small independent IT manufacturers out of business.

Estimates of how this cost will affect, for example, PC prices, range up to a £30 increase.

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