The best features in recycling
Imagine, if you will, a travelling theme park. At the beginning of the summer, it arrives in a town. Workers meticulously assemble the Ferris wheel, the whirligigs and, of course, the dodgems. For several weeks, local residents stream to the attractions to test their bravery on the white-knuckle rides, prove their ability to knock over towers of tin cans and generally let off steam.
Then, at the end of the season, once everyone has had his fill of fun, the workers reappear and, rather than meticulously disassembling the rides and stalls so they can be enjoyed again, simply smash them to bits, shred the parts and separate them by material type, chuck out what they can’t use and melt down the rest to be reformed into new rides.
Seems crazy, doesn’t it? Yet this is exactly the fate suffered by much of our waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) when it goes for end-of-life treatment.
Okay, so the analogy isn’t perfect: Rides are expensive, purpose-built constructions, unlike the mass-manufactured gadgets cluttering our homes and offices. And, at the end of the season, amusements probably won’t be obsolete or broken, as much of our WEEE is. But, surely, that’s the point: Our EEE should not be so cheap and disposable and it should be designed to be repaired (like a roller coaster) or at the very least disassembled for reusable parts.
Undoubtedly, legislation has a role to play in bringing this about and the WEEE Directive aims to ensure a high percentage of WEEE is reused or recycled. According to Nathalie Cliquot at the European Environmental Bureau, the directive should create “market incentives for producers to design more durable products that are easier to dismantle, repair and recycle”. The UK, however, only transposed the minimum requirements for its WEEE Regulations; according to a spokesperson for the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR): “The EU directive states that Member States should ‘encourage’ the better design of products, but the UK chose not to transpose that provision.”
According to the spokesperson, the government made this choice because: “We feel the aim is better delivered through the measures being proposed and adopted under the Ecodesign for Energy-Using Products (EUP) Directive.” This more obscure directive, transposed into UK law in 2007, is a framework under which measures relating to specific products sit. The European Commission (EC) has identified around 30 types of EUPs – from boilers to televisions – that the directive will address. For each product range, the EC commissions a preparatory study on which to base measures setting design parameters; anyone placing products on the European market will have to adhere to the requirements. Measures concerning some devices have already been implemented (the directive is the reason incandescent lamps are being phased out, for example), though most product ranges are still being scrutinised and debated.
By nature of the way the framework is written, it could potentially address all stages of the product lifecycle: In theory, the EU could include measures that set requirements for the sourcing of materials used for products or for
end-of-life proceedures. However, the initial measures just look at energy in use, the part of the lifecycle deemed to have the biggest impact, and the measures must not duplicate the concerns of the WEEE and Restriction of Hazardous Substances (ROHS) Directives, which deal with disposal issues. So, there’s a risk that designing for disassembly could fall through the legislative cracks and, in any case, it would be years before laws require manufacturers to consider devices’ full lifecycles.
Thanks to the WEEE Directive, we at least have a system of collective producer responsibility whereby manufacturers pay to have WEEE collected and treated by compliance schemes. For the different categories of WEEE, schemes must meet general recycling and reuse targets ranging from 50 to 80 per cent by weight of material. There are, however, no specific reuse targets and no legal incentives for manufacturers to design durable, ecofriendly products.
True, some compliance schemes repair electronic items for reuse – WEEECare claims to refurbish for resale 60 to 70 per cent of the material it collects. Not all reprocessors go to the trouble, though; Dan Foad of Midex, for example, explains: “We shred what we get here. Most of the equipment goes into the large machine
and then we separate all of the raw materials, which are resold for smelting
Foad says that even if products were designed for disassembly, the company would still shred them, that it would simply make it easier to get machines through the shredder. Undoubtedly, this wouldn’t be the end manufacturers would envisage for carefully designed products, but reprocessors can’t be entirely blamed for taking this approach. According to Dr Frank O’Connor, Director of the Ecodesign Centre: “With electronics, you’ve got such a diversity of material and age of product that when they reach a reprocessor, it’s very difficult to justify taking them apart, especially when you add in labour.” For high-value items like photocopiers, this isn’t the case (they’re a bit like funfair rides in that way), but for the cheap, ubiquitous gadgets – £5 toasters, £3 computer mice and even £50 televisions – the costs of remanufacturing can be more than the items are worth.
Dr O’Connor says that designing for disassembly could, in theory, work for even really low-value products, but only if the infrastructure is in place to deal with it – if all computer mice were brought to the same location or if machines were returned to individual producers that would know how to disassemble, fix and reassemble their own products, for example. If manufacturers then invest in designing products composed of good parts – which they can use again and retain the value of – perhaps they will have incentive to design out obsolescence.
According to O’Connor, government “needs to take the lead and create demand for better designed products by using the public purse” and by entering into arrangements that encourage ecodesign. He believes things won’t really change until, as a culture, we “look at consumption and growth in a different way and reevaluate our lifestyle on personal and professional levels, resetting priorities and changing patterns of behaviour”. O’Connor believes that as ‘ecoliteracy’ goes up, we’ll demand better products: “It doesn’t make sense that you can buy a toaster at Asda for five quid. If you trace that back through the supply chain, chances are there are lots of people and places negatively impacted. And if you’re buying these products, you can’t ignore your responsibility as a consumer.”
In theory, then, as people become more informed, they’ll be more inclined to pay for ethically manufactured products designed to have a minimal environmental impact. Unfortunately, well designed products tend to cost more, and as people struggle to make ends meet, they’re inclined to avoid large investments – they’d rather pay £5 for a kettle that will break within five months than £30 for one that will last for years before needing a repair.
In the not-so-distant past, people would have had no option but to purchase durable products and consumers, businesses and government all have roles to play in ensuring this becomes the case once more. Whether or not any or all of these parties are capable of holding up their ends of the bargain remains to be seen – but one thing’s for sure: We can’t just close our eyes, hold on tight and go along for the ride – this is the real world, after all, not a travelling funfair, and there’s work to be done.
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