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  WEEE Directive

As of this point in time the WEEE Directive is set to come fully into force in 2007. As things stand nobody is ready, the legislation is unclear, the costs are unknown and there's still a lot of wrangling over who foots the bill for implementing the logistics to meet the Directive's goals.

To be honest, you've more chance of pinning the tail on the donkey than guessing where this legislative nightmare will actually end up and, it would appear, that nobody is really happy about it. Well all except the recyclers and logistics companies that stand to gain through it.

Before I go any further I must explain that I am far from anti-environmental, exactly the opposite in fact, but I take the standpoint of many an economist and, by that, I don't mean simply calculating the numbers but instead focussing on actually looking at the causes and effects of what we are doing. With that said, I'll explain my thinking on the WEEE Directive and how it could affect the appliance industry. In fact, this will probably apply to a good many industries, but each will have its own idiosyncrasies to deal with, what follows is in general terms and may seem somewhat simplistic.

  Waste Logic

On reviewing the Directive I actually stopped at one point wading though the endless droll document and thought, "Hang on a minute. Has anyone actually applied any logic to this at all?"

The first flaw that I can see and, it so happens, the most glaringly obvious one with the WEEE Directive is that it is designed to combat not the cause of the waste or the obvious pollution which comes with that, but instead it combats the effects.

Without actually curing the disease it cannot be considered a cure, merely an elastoplast.

No, I would argue that the Directive as it currently stands is merely a vehicle designed to make governments feel good and win votes as they are seen to be, being green. But things get worse as soon as we start to look a little deeper into what is required to make this work.

Essentially, for complete appliances, what is expected is that the appliances will be "taken back" for proper recycling. But how?

Well, we already have an infrastructure through local government to deal with waste products but instead of investing in that, expanding it and making it more efficient we choose to set up yet more infrastructure to solely deal with these returns. REPIC refer to them as Designated Collection Facilities or the catchy DCF's moniker.

Now perhaps it's just me with my warped view of the world, but does it not seem a bit silly to have two systems doing the same thing?

Of course now we get into a situation where we have to move all these appliances around the country. I'd dearly love to know the carbon cost of that and how it squares against what is done now.

  The Disease

This is the crux of it. The actual disease isn't dealing with the waste at all, it's the fact that we produce so much of it which is. In order to understand that you have to look at the reasons why we have had fridge mountains and we may well be facing appliance mountains in the not too distant future.

It's pretty simple really, appliances are too cheap and are treated by people as a disposable commodity.

Why?

Again, simple. All the manufacturers are chasing increased shares in a stagnant market, given that there is little to no innovation in the appliance industry and it moves at a glacial pace anyway, there are only three ways to do that .

  • Reduce prices to increase share
  • Reduce lifespan
  • Buy your competitors

Of course option three has limits, monopolies commissions have seen to that.

Option two, open to debate.

Option one, well, there's only so far you can go and appliances are cheaper now in real terms than they have ever been, so it must only logical for that to be a popular option that has actually happened.

But I would put forward the argument that this is what has driven appliance manufacturing both on finished product and on components to low labour cost countries. Of course these are the very countries, such as China, that are at the core of the environmental problems.

China, according to a report (The World In 2050) by Price Waterhouse Cooper, expelled more than three times the volume of carbon that Russia in 2004. That is to say that it was twelve times greater than the UK in the same year.

The only country with greater emissions is the US who remain outside the Kyoto Protocols.

However it is important to bear in mind that China installs power facilities (almost all fossil fuel based) at the rate equivalent to the entire UK power grid per year. Power stations to fuel industrialisation are the biggest single source of carbon emissions.

With more and more manufacturing moving to these low cost, unregulated, countries to exploit a competitive edge it was hardly surprising that at some point the piper had to be paid.

  Who Pays To Clean Up The Mess?

Sadly it looks as if everyone will have to do so.

There are implications in the WEEE Directive for manufacturers, brand owners, insurers, repairers and retailers. All will have to foot a part of the bill to do all this as things currently stand.

Of course the manufacturers don't want to pay and are fighting it tooth and nail through AMDEA. I notice however that there are no brand owners in the mix with AMDEA's crusade or have they seemingly made contact with anyone else in the industry. I would have thought that greater collaboration would possibly yield greater results, or at the very least, add more weight and strength to the fight.

So where does that leave the retailers? Pretty much in the dark, especially if you don't happen to belong to RETRA or CIH. I'd lay good odds that most independent retailers don't even know that WEEE will affect them let alone how.

Exactly the same applies to servicing and service organisations. Do they know that electrical and electronic components are set to be dealt with under WEEE, or at least that's this week's interpretation of the legislation? That is to say that some servicing organisations passing work to local independents may well be forced to sign up to a compliance scheme. I bet that they don't do this.

Here's the ironic part. If we levy some form of taxation on imported goods from the worst offending countries with poor emissions records then the manufacturers would scream blue murder as that pushes up prices, makes repairs more viable and cuts volumes. This isn't good for them. However that's really the only way that I can see of making the countries that are the "environmental bad boys" start to address the real issues.

Of course the large national electrical chains wouldn't exactly be over the moon either as having to tell people that goods, especially from a reputable brand, are "Made In China" doesn't exactly make the salesperson's job easy.

  Who Knows

Here's one of the biggest hurdles facing the likes of the DTI, many retailers and brand owners simply haven't a clue about the WEEE Directive. Even if they are aware of some "eco-legislation about waste" many are blissfully unaware of whether or not it applies to them.

Within this industry there appear to be more than a few ostriches.

But even beyond this industry many retailers, such as corner newsagents that happen to sell torches or some toys, may well fall under the remit of WEEE and yet they don't know this. And, articles in the popular press just aren't getting the message across it would appear.

A recent survey suggests that up to 65% or businesses that could be affected by this legislation are either unaware or have no plans to deal with it. In my opinion this will make enforcement at best difficult, if not impossible especially when it is considered that there appears to be little or no method to enforce the legislation.

  The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this, to implement any sort of scheme to deal with waste products, regardless of how you want to slice it, is going to cost everybody money. We are all consumers and, ultimately, one way or another consumers will have to foot the bill.

In the meantime everyone has to work out what the bill will be, which is very difficult when the rules of the game keep changing.

The only questions that remain to be answered are how much and what hoops do we have to jump through to get it done?

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