Getting the Lead Out

EU recycling plan worries manufacturers

The European Parliament last week adopted several amendments to two controversial environmental proposals to be considered by the European Union — one that would set recycling standards for obsolete electronic equipment and another that would ban the use of some key substances in new electronics.

On the whole, the amendments would make the directives more stringent. Electronics manufacturers said that, while they support the goals of the proposed measures, they have several concerns, particularly with regard to the ban on substances.

"We want to make sure the specific mandates are doable," said Timothy Bennett, senior vice president of international issues at AeA, formerly known as the American Electronics Association.

Under the first directive, manufacturers would be responsible for the recovery, most likely from collection points, of their products gone obsolete, and for the treatment and "environmentally sound disposal" of those products. The second directive would ban the use in new electronic products of a half dozen hazardous substances, including lead and mercury.

But manufacturers have argued that there are no acceptable alternatives to some of the banned chemicals. They have also said that the EU has not considered whether alternatives to the banned substances are any safer. The proposals would drive up the cost of electronics, manufacturers have said, and make some products, like laptop computers, less energy-efficient.

The proposed directives must now go to the Council of the European Union, made up of representatives from the 15 EU member states, which will then decide whether to accept the changes made by the parliament.

EU officials say electronic waste is a growing problem. Six million tons of waste was produced in 1998, and the amount of waste is increasing by 3 percent to 5 percent each year.

Among other things, Parliaments amendments to the European Commissions original proposals would:

Increase the target collection rates for electronic waste.

Shorten the deadline for the collection of electronic waste and financing of its cleanup from five years to 30 months.

Change the year the substances ban would go into effect from 2008 to 2006.

The European Environmental Bureau, a coalition of environmental groups, applauded the changes adopted by the parliament, but said it would like to see the EU go further by banning additional substances.

"In total, however, this is an overall improvement of the commission proposal," said Christian Hey, the groups EU policy director, in a statement.

The AeA organized a delegation of representatives from such U.S. companies as Advanced Micro Devices, Intel and Sun Microsystems to go to Europe last week to meet with their European counterparts, including the European Information and Communications Technology Industry Association, and to lobby EU officials about their concerns.

The delegation aimed to build closer ties with European industry officials to help push for changes to the two directives. It also wanted to ensure industry has a greater say in the development of a third directive being crafted by the European Commission. That directive would set standards aimed at pushing industry to make products that are easier to recycle.

Industry is concerned that this new proposal will dictate to computer makers how they can design and build their products, said Holly Evans, director of environmental affairs at the U.S.-based Electronics Industries Alliance.