A load of rubbish

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If you’ve been to have your inkjet cartridges refilled at Cartridge World recently, you might just have noticed the tip of the WEEE iceberg on the counter. WEEE – the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive – is designed to cut the waste mountain in discarded electrical kit by encouraging recycling, and the reason the cartridge replenishment guys are so upset is the word ‘recycle’. Recycle not reuse. Some cartridges contain microchips and their makers argue that they thus come into the  WEEE net and cannot be refilled but must be sent for recycling once empty. Good news for the cartridge makers, but bad for consumers who must pay for a new cartridge each time.

The sensible option
Bad news, too, surely, for the environment as refilling seems a rather more sensible option than breaking up and starting again.

But this WEEE problem is a flea bite compared with the mountains of electrical goods which must be trundled around the country to specialist recycling centres in order to comply with the directive. As with the fridges debacle a year or so ago, very little has yet been done to build the necessary recycling operations. Most experts believe that these will be run by local authorities who will charge manufacturers for the service.

More complex will be the long-term implications, however. While ‘historic’ defunct electric goods bought before 2005 will be the manufacturers’ problem to sort out, many of the items purchased after WEEE takes effect will become the shared responsibility of buyer and seller. In effect, items like PCs will need to be registered and tracked throughout their life so that they end up being both correctly recycled and that recycling is correctly charged to the relevant parties.

According to Gartner recycling could add around €50 to the cost of a typical PC – one can guess that other bits and bobs of electronics will become similarly more costly. While tracking such products throughout their lifecycle may provide yet more impetus for RFID, it will certainly lead to massive databases to manage the necessary information. And it will also create plenty of goods for back-loading trucks and delivery vans: each time a new home PC, TV or vacuum cleaner is dropped off, the customer may need to hand over the old one to avoid a lengthy trip to some remote centralised specialist recycling plant.

And once the goods have been collected and returned to distribution centres, they will have to be logged and tracked to ensure that the relevant manufacturers are charged. Then they will need to be loaded up and moved again to reach the recycling unit. For corporates the problem escalates: large businesses might easily persuade IT suppliers to collect and dispose of old kit but smaller businesses will have less pressure to exert and logistics staff may find themselves doubling as recycling managers to ensure WEEE compliance.

It all seems something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I remember a few years back whenever I upgraded equipment the dealer would happily take the old system away to refurbish the ageing kit for ‘the Third World’. Sometimes he would even pay me for the privilege. But refurbishment such as this was not just for developing nations. Numerous mid-tier retailers have bought secondhand PCs and EPoS equipment over the years and it has often served them very well.

How this ‘re-use’ market will be affected by WEEE remains to be seen – but the cartridgerefillers are clearly not optimistic.

So, what next?
Some experts are predicting a boom in sales of IT hardware over the next 12 months as corporates strive to ditch old kit before WEEE takes effect. Others are predicting that the next generation of systems may be more environmentally-friendly to ease recycling issues – they might also last longer. After all, if getting rid of old electrical goods becomes such a nightmare maybe fashion (or software demands) will prove a less significant driver for change.

If nobody buys new kit, there will be nothing to recycle. I wonder if the EU’s WEEE-enthusiasts thought of that.

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