What is WEEE? Understanding The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive

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What Is WEEE?

WEEE, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulation, is an EU directive that aims to improve the collection, treatment, and recycling processes of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) that is no longer in use.

e-waste - what is WEEE directive
Electronic waste
Source: Muntaka Chasant

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that by 2030, over 74 million metric tonnes of WEEE, also known as e-waste, will be discarded globally (Forti et al. 2020). This represents a doubling in under two decades. 

The WEEE directive was created to address the negative environmental and human health impacts caused by e-waste, and to encourage proper recycling and re-use of EEE. 

Since WEEE’s creation in 2002, the directive has been updated to expand its scope.

Original WEEE Directive – The original directive, Directive 2002/96/EU, includes requirements companies must follow to comply with WEEE, and includes eleven categories of EEE regulated under WEEE.

WEEE Recast – The directive was updated in 2012, when Directive 2012/19/EU recategorized EEE into six categories

2018 Expansion – The scope of products regulated under WEEE was expanded in 2018 to include all EEE.

Objectives of WEEE

The overall goals of the WEEE directive are to reduce the negative environmental and health impacts of e-waste disposal and to increase sustainable use of resources. 

The directive works to:

  • Reduce the amount of e-waste that ends up in landfills
  • Encourage redesign of EEE so that it can be dismantled and properly disposed of
  • Increase re-use of WEEE and its components and materials

To achieve these goals, WEEE requires Member States to set specific targets for the amount (by weight) of EEE collected, recycled, and recovered. These targets differ by country.

Which Products Are Restricted by WEEE?

what is weee - electronics

As of 2018, all EEE is included under WEEE, as every EEE device becomes WEEE at the end of its use. EEE is defined as “equipment which is dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields in order to work properly and equipment for the generation, transfer and measurement of such currents and fields” (Article 3 of Directive 2012/19/EU).

EEE subject to WEEE regulation is classified under six categories:

  1. Temperature exchange equipment
  2. Screens, monitors, and equipment containing screens with a surface larger than 100 cm2.
  3. Lamps
  4. Large equipment (any dimension larger than 50cm)
  5. Small equipment (no dimension larger than 50cm)
  6. Small IT and telecommunication equipment

Several specific types of EEE are exempt from WEEE regulation. Read more: WEEE Exemptions

Who Does WEEE Impact?

WEEE has widespread impact, but directly affects producers and buyers of EEE.

1) Producers of EEE: Manufacturers, Importers, Distributors, and Distance Sellers

All producers of EEE must comply with WEEE requirements. The directive defines producers as anyone who:

  • Manufactures and sells EEE under his/her own brand
  • Resells EEE produced by other suppliers under his/her own brand
  • Imports or exports EEE into an EU Member State
  • Sells EEE by “distance” (for example, over the internet) to Member States, even if this seller is in a different country.

Compliance Requirements for Producers

The directive aims to place the responsibility of proper recycling of WEEE on producers. Under WEEE, producers must:

  1. Register and report the volume of EEE placed on the EU market to the correct governing body (which varies by country).

Producers of EEE must meet the recycling targets determined by each Member State. Reporting the volume of EEE placed on the market allows Member States to track WEEE compliance.

EEE producers that place more than 5 tonnes of EEE on the EU market must register with a WEEE compliance scheme, an organization that helps ensure proper collection and recycling of EEE. Producers that place less than 5 tonnes of EEE on the market must register with the local Environmental Agency.

  1. Offer their customers a method to recycle EEE at the end of its lifecycle.

Producers must create or finance a system for customers to recycle old EEE. This may entail a collection service or a drop-off location. This recycling program must be free of charge to the customer.

  1. Provide recycling services with the necessary information on how to recycle the EEE product or prepare the product to be re-used.

As many EEE products are composed of multiple materials, it is important for producers to provide information to recyclers on how to properly dispose of the product and its components.

  1. Label products with the “wheelie bin” symbol.

WEEE requires that all compliant EEE be marked with the “WEEE symbol,” a recycling bin that is crossed out. This helps customers to properly dispose of their EEE products.

Read more: WEEE Compliance

Prices may increase for producers as a result of these requirements, such as compliance scheme fees or the creation of new programs. 

However, WEEE allows companies to save costs on materials, as companies can begin to use reused, and thus cheaper, materials. The use of recycled materials also works against resource scarcity and supply chain issues, which can save companies money in the long run.

2) Buyers of EEE: Consumers

Most individuals today buy and use EEE, as do many businesses, and are thus impacted by WEEE.

Buyers may face higher prices for their electronic devices due to WEEE. As producers pay increased costs to produce WEEE-compliant products and recycling programs, consumers often offset these costs by paying more for their devices. However, all disposal programs offered by producers must be free of charge for the buyer. 

While consumers do not face the same legal requirements as producers, consumers still play a role in ensuring proper disposal of WEEE. It is important that consumers avoid throwing used electronics in the landfill, and rather, take steps to ensure proper disposal, such as returning the EEE to a producer.

Proper disposal of EEE also helps keep sensitive data stored on a device such as a phone or computer secure. If a consumer wishes to protect their information, the process laid out by WEEE for proper disposal is a crucial step.

3) Other: The General Public

Ultimately, WEEE affects everyone, as the directive works to protect the health of our environment and communities. WEEE helps keep dangerous materials out of the air, soil, and water. Read more about the environmental and health impacts of WEEE below.

The WEEE directive benefits the general public as it allows for increased resource efficiency. WEEE ensures that more products are created using reusable and recycled materials and components. 

This resource efficiency also pushes innovation in EEE products. In order to use recycled materials or to allow for proper disposal, producers must create new design processes for EEE.

Why is WEEE Important?

In the long run, WEEE will help create more sustainable products and a healthier environment. WEEE’s importance can be summarized into three main areas of impact: the market, the environment, and consumer health. While WEEE creates increased costs for sellers and buyers of EEE, the directive also increases sustainability and protects the natural environment and human health.

1) The Market

As discussed previously under “Buyers of EEE,” WEEE raises costs for producers and buyers of EEE alike. 

EEE producers must create or finance recycling programs for their consumers. Additionally, steps to ensure WEEE compliance may be costly.

Buyers also experience increased prices of electronics in their day to day lives as a result of WEEE.

However, these increased prices come hand in hand with a more sustainable economy. A central goal of WEEE is to create a circular economy, an economy in which industry reuses and recycles raw materials. The circular economy minimizes waste and addresses resource scarcity in a world of finite raw materials.

2) The Environment

Many electronic devices contain materials such as heavy metals and chemicals that have large environmental consequences upon becoming e-waste. Improper disposal creates environmental pollution, destroys habitats, and impacts the health of other species.

When WEEE is improperly disposed of, such as through shredding or melting, toxins and particles are released into the air that can cause air pollution. This pollution may have larger environmental consequences, and can damage human lungs.

Additionally, improper disposal of WEEE allows hazardous materials to enter groundwater and soil. This contamination has widespread effects, as toxic materials may impact crops or drinking water, leading to negative health outcomes for animals and humans. Chemicals found in WEEE can also cause acidification of rivers and other waterways.

Lastly, WEEE takes up land area when it sits in landfills. By increasing proper recycling measures and encouraging reuse of materials, the WEEE directive helps reduce the amount of space landfills use globally. 

3) Consumer Health

The WEEE directive works to reduce risks to human health caused by exposure to e-waste. 

E-waste can contain toxic substances such as lead, mercury, sulfur and cadmium. If these materials are not disposed of properly, the buildup of contamination in water and soil can cause health problems.

A 2013 WHO study found that exposure to e-waste can cause severe health impacts, including adverse birth outcomes, changes in thyroid function and cell function and decreased lung function (Grant et al. 2013).

WEEE works in tandem with the RoHS directive, which restricts the use of hazardous materials in EEE manufacturing. If fewer hazardous materials are used in manufacturing electronic devices, then, when those products become e-waste, negative impacts are lower.

Read more: RoHS vs. WEEE

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