Electric Blue Sky

March 1, 2005

The WEEE Directive was enacted in January 2003 and will take effect from August 2005. The legislation addresses the back-end of a product’s life cycle and mandates for the take-back and recycling of a large percentage of virtually any electrical or electronic product with a battery or plug. The legislation is a laudable attempt to make industry more responsible with regard to the take back of waste electrical and electronic equipment. However, we believe that there are issues that need to be addressed in terms of the UK‘s transposing of the Directive.

Overall, the directive has been set according to tonnages of waste produced by the consumer. Indeed, the emphasis is on trapping consumer waste for recovery, as it was felt it would be difficult to make the consumer comply. The legislation was primarily not devised with the business user in mind, though the business community must comply – and unlike the consumer will be penalised harshly if it does not.

This is an important point for law firms. Reputation management is critical in the legal sector and the slightest oversight – a broken monitor put out in the waste skip by the cleaner, an asset-tagged PC lent to a staff member and then discarded, the old Dictaphone tossed in the bin by the senior partner – could lead to environmental penalties.

It is generally considered that one of the main effects of the WEEE directive will be that the price of computer equipment will go up. However, this is only reasonable; as we stand at the moment, a significant amount of computer equipment ends up in landfill. As a business, we do not take issue with the need for a levy, or cost, that will be borne by the business customer. Where we believe there is a significant issue is in the question of how that levy, or cost, should be structured.

As far as the business customer is concerned, the important point is that the obligation is passed from the ‘producer’ to the business customer. He automatically receives that obligation. The problem is that, under the system as described in the WEEE paper, that levy is automatically loaded into the start of the life cycle of the product – and that is not necessary.

It should also be noted that with the proposal as it stands, producers could end up with an effective monopoly on recycling, as the levy of 1 – 2% is hidden and compulsory. However, manufacturers do not want a monopoly and are willing to accede some control of this area to willing recyclers. By not making the levy transparent, explicit and avoidable, a competitive market forming in the usual manner will be prevented.

If the business customer takes responsibility for recycling of the product, it is only right that they would expect to pay for the levy at a later date. And the disposal and recycling of much IT equipment is not an unimportant function. Companies – especially law firms with their professional duty of confidentialityneed to know that at the end of its life, equipment with data on it will be handled in a reasonable, proper manner. It is entirely reasonable therefore for a business customer to want to handle disposal himself.

Such equipment with data is the cornerstone of all IT systems. Where PCs are seen as consumable items, the engine houses of IT systems are core to most companies’ well-being – and are therefore treated with ‘kid gloves’.

Taking such equipment out of service invariably involves significant security issues. A storage system has sensitive data, such as accumulated passwords, etc. and good corporate governance will mean that it will not be treated as mere junk. Therefore, its treatment has to be different from that of typical WEEE. However, it is reasonably straightforward to facilitate the re-use of such equipment. Typical deployment of servers etc. is for two to three years only while their useful life is a lot longer, due in the main to the fact that the equipment has been so well looked after. Therefore, it is our estimate that approximately 60% of what we receive for recovery, reuse or recycling can be reused.

The 60% that goes for reuse has an economic value. Such value dies if the equipment goes for recycling. Its reuse value may be 5% or 50% of the original purchase value but it will be a much more significant figure than the 1-2% average recycling cost. It is our belief that the total value to the economy through better reuse of data centre IT could feasibly fund compliance costs for an appreciable part of the entire IT market – the remarketing of a typical low end server will yield approximately £550, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of a total recycling service for over 100 PCs. The consultation paper does not appear to envisage this type of re-use.

In addition, network and server equipment used by law firms will inevitably contain sensitive information. Data destruction to many is more important than the total cost of recycling because of the mission-critical nature of the data. Therefore, it is vital that data security plays an important role in the remanufacture and recycle process.

The WEEE Directive is a vital piece of legislation if we are to proactively start tackling environmental issues that will have an effect on the whole of society – now and for other generations. It is therefore imperative that the framework is put in place now for a system that can work robustly and efficiently.

Jeremy Parsons is Managing Director of SML Recycling: www.selwaymoore.com/sml/

For an Environment Agency summary of the Directive itself, see http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/444217/444663/602520/602525/?version=1&lang=_e