The WEEE Challenge - Europe Faces Up to Electronic Waste Directives

The 2003 EU directives on electronic waste treatment have stirred their share of controversy. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and its complementary directive, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) prohibiting the use of specific toxic substances were passed in an effort to tackle the huge recent growth in e-waste by encouraging recycling and multiple uses of products and the elimination of any hazardous wastes they may contain.

by Luk Van Wassenhove, Panfeng Chan,Priya Narayan
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

The 2003 EU directives on electronic waste treatment have stirred their share of controversy. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and its complementary directive, the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) prohibiting the use of specific toxic substances were passed in an effort to tackle the huge recent growth in e-waste -- now one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the world - by encouraging recycling and multiple uses of products and the elimination of any hazardous wastes they may contain.

Henry Ford Chaired Professor of Manufacturing Luk Van Wassenhove explores the whys and wherefores of the WEEE Directive, particularly what he views as its lynchpin: the distinction it makes in assigning producer responsibility for both "historical" (i.e., products on the market before August 2005) and future e-waste.

A major sticking point with the WEEE Directive is its requirement that individual producers be held responsible for whatever electrical and electronic equipment they release to market, either via individual or collective systems. Van Wassenhove discusses four different main models of how many of Europe's largest such manufacturers have opted to deal with this issue. These include effects on product design; the impact on component supply chains; product information and reporting, and product marking.

The author also asserts that both directives will have major effect well beyond Europe, and ponders whether the US and other countries might "piggyback" on the RoHS Directive, thereby enjoying major reductions in the hazardous substances contained in electrical and electronic equipment. Among several other potential shortfallings, would the American government - whose trade disputes with Brussels are both frequent and often bitter -- also be tempted to accuse the EC of instilling "green trade barriers"? Furthermore, since the WEEE is an EU directive, transposing its requirements into law is the duty of member states and they have complete independence in implementing all relevant specifications, however ambiguously these may be stated.

Van Wassenhove also offers a detailed analysis of the likely impact of the WEE directive on the main industries it will affect: namely; white goods, consumer electronics and IT and telecommunications. Various European MNCs have opted for quite different implementation policies for WEEE compliance. The author considers the four main systems currently in place - collective, preferred industrial alliance, independent action, and common agreement - and considers why the various multinationals have opted for their selected preferences. He concludes by contemplating the onerous tasks European governments will face in implementing WEEE and RoHS, especially in erecting straightforward, practical and efficient systems. These must both promote competitiveness and allow manufacturers to achieve mandated targets. If they succeed, the European electronic goods market will be transformed for the better. If not, the impact on the economic and environmental landscape could be very grave, indeed.

INSEAD 2004

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