Leveling the WEEE Field

Producers and recyclers involved with the four-year WEELABEX Project have made progress toward standardizing the recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

February 26, 2013
Julie-Ann Adams

Following the implementation of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) in Europe back in 2005, national legislation has been executed across all 27 Member States of the European Union, requiring producers of new equipment placed on to the European market to be responsible for the end-of-life treatment (and cost) of their products.

A review and update (known as WEEE II-the recast) was agreed upon by the European Commission in July 2012, with clearer requirements imposed on producers, not least to ensure that environmentally sound management is applied across the recovery and recycling chain. However, as a directive (and not a regulation), each member state was permitted under WEEE to draft and implement its own legislation setting out the way the Directive was to be interpreted and applied in that country. This has led to some disparity and difficulties, which was acknowledged by the European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety during the long recast process.

After only a few years of the WEEE directive’s enactment, it was recognised that having a patchwork of both legal and contractual requirements, with different objectives and enforced with different levels of determination, hinders processing companies’ economies of scale and creates an uneven playing field. In some parts of Europe WEEE treatment technologies are cutting-edge and workers’ safety is properly ensured, while in others de-pollution and mechanical treatment is performed in workshops with inadequate safety measures or inappropriate mass-shredder technologies. In addition, new types of electrical and electronic equipment have come on to the market that require specialized de-pollution techniques or practices. Furthermore, in some parts of Europe, downstream operations are carefully monitored and documented, while in others consumers and electronics producers paying for the management of WEEE have no such assurance. For these reasons the European Commission recommended early on that essential harmonized criteria should be laid down at Union level and European standards for the collection and treatment of WEEE should be developed.

The WEELABEX Project
In consideration of these issues, the WEEELABEX project was initiated in 2007 against a specific legal, environmental and commercial background. WEEELABEX, the acronym for WEEE LABel of Excellence, is a project run by the WEEE Forum in cooperation with stakeholders from the producers’ community and WEEE treatment industry. The initiative was developed in order to realize an EU wide goal of having a level playing field for all recyclers, and as a consequence, for producers across all 27 EU member states plus Switzerland and Norway, by making environmental performance more transparent and thus stimulating operators to meet high criterions, and to also ensure that fraudulent companies find it more difficult to dodge the system.

The WEEE Forum (a European non-profit association) represents 39 producer responsibility organizations or “WEEE systems,” all of them run on behalf of producers. It was set up in the early 2000s and is the biggest organization of its kind in the world.

In 2010, the Forum’s member organizations reported collection and proper de-pollution and recycling of more than two million tons of WEEE, representing approximately two-thirds of officially reported WEEE collection in Europe.

In July 2008, the European Commission Life+ committee approved the WEEE Forum’s four-year WEEELABEX project, and work began in earnest in January 2009. Producers and recyclers associations were represented in working groups and in the project’s steering group. WEEELABEX is the WEEE Forum’s most important standardization project, both in terms of financial resources and scope.

Recognizing that the WEEELABEX standards would be seen as private in format, the WEEE Forum signed an agreement of cooperation with CENELEC , the European committee for electrotechnical standardization, in August 2009. The WEEELABEX standards were proposed to the CENELEC Technical Board with a view to their incorporation in the body of CENELEC standards (and when appropriate as IEC standards) through the normal approval procedures, and in March 2010 the first drafts were put forward and dual work assignments undertaken to parallel the development of both the WEEELABEX and CENELEC standards for treatment.

After many meetings and investigative trials, the result was a set of European WEEELABEX standards published in April 2011 with respect to the collection, sorting, storage, transportation, preparation for re-use, treatment and disposal of all kinds of WEEE (available on the WEEE Forum website at www.weee-forum.org).

The standards are the world’s first continental, comprehensive and coherent set of requirements on operations from collection to the recovery of WEEE materials covering all categories and types of electrical and electronic equipment. The first of the CENELEC formal EN standards, “Collection, logistics and treatment requirements for end-of-life household appliances containing volatile fluorocarbons or volatile hydrocarbons,” (for refridgerators; freezers; air-conditioning units etc.) was published in May 2012.

The Global Impact
How might these standards affect recyclers and secondary commodities traders from around the world? The original WEEE Directive imposes strict requirements on the treatment of e-waste in the EU, but as has been previously noted, there are plenty of indications that a significant amount of this waste is not collected and treated under conditions that are equivalent to the requirements of this Directive. Instead it is exported to countries outside the EU, disguised as nonhazardous components or fractions or as used goods. Currently approximately 65% of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) placed on the European market is separately collected, but less than half of this is treated and reported appropriately; the remainder potentially leaks out to substandard treatment and/or is illegally exported to other countries, among which are non-OECD countries.

WEEE II (the recast) acknowledges that any establishment or undertakings carrying out recycling and treatment operations along the whole downstream chain (to the end-of waste status) should comply with minimum standards to prevent negative environmental impacts associated with the treatment of WEEE. Meeting these challenges and providing foundation criterion, the WEEELABEX and CENELEC standards are expected to be, at least, acknowledged by national governments and the administrative bodies in Europe in charge of implementation and enforcement of the provisions in the WEEE II recast and transposed in national (and sub-national) regulation.

Under the terms of the WEEELABEX project proposal, the WEEE Forum is now establishing a standalone legal entity, the WEEELABEX Organization, which will be primarily involved in training and auditing activities. All WEEE systems (including those European WEEE systems who are not members of the WEEE Forum), which can be both collective and individual, both for-profit and not-for-profit, can join the WEEELABEX Organization. To date, 30 WEEE Forum member systems and one non-WEEE Forum member system have confirmed their commitment in being founding members.

One of the implicit requirements of membership is that WEEE systems operating in Western Europe that join will have to contractually require the collection sites, logistics facilities and recycling plants they work with to implement the WEEELABEX standards (or superseding CENELEC standards) by 31st December 2013. For those producer compliance schemes in Central and Eastern Europe, the deadline has been extended to 31st December 2014.

It should be remembered these WEEE systems were responsible for more than 2 million tons of WEEE in 2012 and that collectively this represents in excess of two-thirds of all officially reported WEEE collection in Europe. Thus, any treatment operator wishing to remain working for WEEELABEX systems will have to step up to the mark if they wish to benefit from these potentially lucrative contracts.

Membership to the WEEELABEX Organization therefore seeks to provide assurance of an environmentally sound and efficient operator audit process under WEEE II, and will bring a better commercial position and unequivocal benchmarks. It is anticipated that this will also lead to lower costs due to the shared expenditures of mutually recognized audits of all approved WEEELABEX operators.

Auditing Downstream Routes
The WEEELABEX auditing scheme will result in confirmation of first and second step treatment operators with WEEELABEX or equivalent requirements for various treatment processes they perform at their facility. The WEEELABEX Conformity Verification (CV) will be conducted by auditors who have successfully passed the WEEELABEX training course and exam and maintain continuous professional development training. The first course is anticipated to be run in the coming summer months.

The WEEELABEX Organisation will seek to become an accredited training center in 2013/2014 for auditors giving additional credence to the standards process.

European WEEE treatment facilities wishing to attain the WEEELABEX standard will need to submit to a thorough examination and audit of their legal compliance documentation, reporting systems and understanding of the regulations that are relevant to their operation; and also of the treatment processes and importantly, the verification of the downstream routes of all the materials that have arisen as part of their treatment process.

As WEEELABEX audits are rolled out in 2013 and 2014, recyclers and traders will no doubt be asked to provide additional supporting evidence to their clients of the end-destination processes in order for them be able to trace each material output to the end-of-waste status, incorporating measures to record the efficiencies and verification of all downstream partners, in particular for hazardous fractions, substances and components. A lack of evidence or cooperation with a full WEEELABEX audit themselves may mean that some downstream operators will see commercial contracts terminated. Global recyclers and traders should therefore be asking themselves now if they are able to meet these standards, and if not, seeking advice of how to put improvements into place as quickly as possible.


Julie-Ann Adams, president of the U.K. environmental consulting firm Really Green Credentials Ltd., www.reallygreencredentials.com, can be reached at Julie-ann@rgcuk.com.