What is the WEEE Directive? Know your obligations

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The modern world produces electronic devices at an unprecedented rate. Whenever a new phone, tablet or laptop is manufactured, an older one is made obsolete. And those older devices must be disposed of in a way that’s safe and environmentally responsible.

The scale of this challenge is difficult to exaggerate. According to the Health and Safety Executive, we in the UK toss away around two million tonnes of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (or WEEE, as it’s otherwise known). This umbrella term covers just about everything that runs on electricity: from large household appliances like fridges and ovens to pocket calculators.

Managing this problem is the function of a piece of EU law called European Community Directive 2012/19/EU. Or, as it’s more commonly known, the WEEE directive. But what exactly is the WEEE directive? Let’s examine it more closely.


What is the WEEE Directive?

European WEEE regulations first came to be in February 2003, supplementing the UK’s domestic environmental regulations and working alongside the RoHS directive, which imposed restrictions on manufacturers. The WEEE directive was then revised in 2012, with the aim of stemming a rising tide of electronic waste.

This body of law sets out clear guidelines for how to dispose of electronic waste. Devices covered by the directive are easy to spot; they bear a crossed-out wheelie-bin symbol. Check the label on the back of just about any piece of electronic equipment, and you’re certain to find it (that is, if you haven’t peeled off the sticker).

The WEEE directive divides electrical waste into ten categories:

  • Large household appliances (Category 1)
  • Small household appliances (Category 2)
  • IT and Telecommunications equipment (Category 3)
  • Consumer equipment (Category 4)
  • Lighting equipment (Category 5)
  • Electrical and electronic tools (Category 6)
  • Toys, leisure and sports equipment (Category 7)
  • Medical devices (Category 8)
  • Monitoring and control instruments (Category 9)
  • Automatic dispensers (Category 10)


Why is the WEEE Directive Important?

It might not be obvious why old equipment can’t be simply tossed into the household waste, as it was back in the old days. The topic has been covered exhaustively elsewhere, but it’s worth thinking about what EEE products are actually made of. Depending on the device, the answer can vary considerably. For the most part, harmless metals, plastics and glass constitute most of the weight of the average television, computer or fridge. But you’ll also find trace amounts of other, more harmful substances.

Older cathode-ray tubes of the sort you’ll find in old televisions and computer monitors contain mercury, lead and phosphorus pentachloride, which, when mixed with water, will spew out toxic fumes and ruin the environment. Obviously, this isn’t the sort of thing you want dumped into your local river.


What about Brexit?

There’s a sizeable elephant in the room in the form of the UK’s impending departure from the European Union. So what does Brexit mean for the WEEE directive, and what can UK businesses do to prepare for it? The simple answer is that nothing much is set to change. Thanks to the much-trumpeted ‘Great Repeal Bill’, the entire corpus of EU environmental law will be copy-pasted into UK law the moment Brexit occurs.

Of course, there’s nothing to say that Brexit won’t take an unforeseen turn, or that the UK’s environmental laws won’t be changed by a future government. But this isn’t a political blog! Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, they’re unlikely to alter the chemical properties of mercury and lithium. The way we dispose of electronics waste is therefore unlikely to change soon.


How Can Retailers Comply with the WEEE Directive?

Under the WEEE directive, every business that sells Electrical and Electronic Equipment must do things in a certain way. This is so whether you’re selling over the internet, in the real world, by telephone or by carrier pigeon.

Retailers have two options. They can either allow customers to return their waste electronics to the store, or they can set up a dedicated collection facility, to which customers can return their goods. Whichever you choose, you’ll have a duty to inform your customers of the return service in writing. This information should include:

  • What the wheelie-bin symbol means.
  • How EEE goods can be repurposed.
  • What the harmful effects of failure might be.

This service must be free, and it must allow customers twenty-eight days to return their waste item.

Physical stores might provide this information using leaflets and posters, while online ones will do it digitally. Helpfully, the government website provides a useful template so that every business can get this job done with minimal time and effort.

If you run a bricks and mortar shop whose sales area covers more than four-hundred square metres, then you’re obliged to take back every WEEE item that’s less than twenty-five centimetres long. This rule applies even if you didn’t sell the item, and even if the person presenting it to you isn’t a customer.

The WEEE you store will need to be passed on to a special facility called an Approved Authorised Treatment Facility (AATF), usually via an intermediary Producer Compliance Scheme (or PCS). If you’re inclined, you might transport the waste yourself; but to do so you’ll first need to register as a waste carrier in the countries you’re shipping through, and follow the rules on transporting hazardous waste.

Retailers are also obliged to log each piece of waste they dispose of, along with the number that were returned to a PCS, and the means through which you informed your customers of their options. These records should be kept for four years.


Isn’t there an alternative?

All of this requires quite a lot of fiddly administration of the sort that might make smaller businesses nervous. But since non-compliance is punishable by a £5,000 fine at a magistrate’s court, and an unlimited one at a Crown Court, the WEEE directive is something that all businesses involved in EEE should take seriously.

Here at XPO IT Services, we’ve the experience and enthusiasm needed to tackle your waste electronics as part of a single, cohesive service. We’ll get rid of your old stuff in a secure and environmentally responsible way and ensure that you comply with the relevant regulations. Get in touch now!

The author: Mark Cotterell
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