New recycling regulations are here, bringing changes to the way we dispose of our old PCs and peripherals. Here's what the WEEE Directive means for you.
Britain has an electrical junk problem. Two millions tonnes of the stuff are generated in this country every year, and consumer electronics and IT products are among the leading contributors to the pile.
Many of these products contain hazardous materials, such as cadmium, that require specialist treatment. Something needs to be done – and will be, on 1 July.
That's when the WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) Directive goes live. It's hoped that WEEE, a set of regulations with the primary goal of reducing the volume of monitors and motherboards sent to our landfills, will encourage the re-use of old components and more responsible waste disposal.
"Of electrical waste that was taken to the tip previously, only a small percentage was recycled," says Clare Snow, director of Icer (the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling). "Some was re-used if spotted before it was covered, but too much went into landfill. WEEE should change that.
"Before, people were turned away if they wanted to recycle, but now they have somewhere to go. And they can still put it in the wheelie bin."
Under the new regulations, responsibility for financing electrical waste passes to those that produce it. Retailers have an obligation to take back old equipment when customers buy something new.
In essence, the companies that profit from selling future electrical waste will pay for its disposal. They will no longer rely on local authorities and taxpayers.
But will companies take notice? Kirstie McIntyre, a representative of HP, says the firm has started acting already.
"We've joined a PCS [producer compliance scheme] and we talk about numbers and how many tonnes of WEEE HP produces. We provide sales data to the Environment Agency and it works out our market share and how much waste we're responsible for," she explains.
Manufacturers, system builders and even firms that simply rebadge other makers' computers must sign up to one of 37 PCSes once the regulations come into force next month. At the end of each quarter, the PCSes and Environment Agency will divide the total cost of disposal among vendors on the basis of their market share.
Retailers must either contribute to a scheme aimed at funding waste disposal sites or offer an instore take-back service. For large operators on the outskirts of town, instore take-back makes sense. But for many vendors, it simply isn't practical.
"We've joined a distributor take-back scheme run by Valpak [a compliance and recycling specialist; valpak.co.uk] because we won't be offering instore takeback," said Mick Thomas, WEEE expert at Evesham.
"We courier most of our PCs out and it would be too expensive to courier them back."
What a dump
Much will depend on where you buy your PC but, in general, you should continue to go to the tip or any of the 'designated collection facilities' listed here. Very few online retailers are offering to collect old systems when they deliver new hardware.
"Online customers will be offered a similar service to anyone buying in store," said PC World public affairs manager Victoria Patterson.
"Someone buying online from Currys could take their old computer back to one of our stores."
Even if you buy from a store that offers an instore take-back scheme, there's nothing to stop you visiting the tip if this is more convenient.
An alternative is offered by Dell, which offers a similar service to home PC users as it does to business customers. The firm will collect your old PC directly from your doorstep.
"Dell will cover the cost of home pickup, shipping to the recycling centre and recycling of old equipment," a spokesperson told PC Advisor.
"The equipment will not be collected at the same time that we deliver the new hardware, because consumers need time to transfer data. Customers can log their collection request at any time after their new product has been delivered."
Badge of allegiance
Wherever you buy, the retailer and manufacturer should be able to show you
a registration number in the store, as well as labelling on the goods themselves, to prove they have contributed to the schemes.
"If a manufacturer isn't selling kit that displays its registration number, the chances are it's skipping other things it should be doing," said Keith Warburton, chairman of the Professional Computer Association.
"You don't want to risk buying from that firm."
Indeed, shoppers may have to fight for WEEE rights, because there are loopholes that cowboy retailers might try to exploit.
Technically, retailers are required to offer to take back old kit only at the time of purchase – but the sane ones among us don't take bulky old PCs and hardware along for the ride when we go shopping.
"Legally, we have to offer take-back only when customers actually buy the replacement," Victoria Patterson says. "But the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] has asked us to be reasonable because people might not have the kit with them.
"If we wanted to say, 'Not got it today, then tough luck', we could. Some vendors might try it on. But it wouldn't be good customer service."
Check the time limits the retailer places on returns. If it offers take-back only on the day of purchase, buy elsewhere. Ditching a PC before its replacement is up and running makes no sense.
Buried in rubbish
If you've got an old system lurking in the back of your garage – perhaps one from a company that's gone bust – you can still take that kit to the tip. The industry will pick up the tab for disposal of old equipment.
No one knows how this will work in practice – whether the regulations will spark a mass clearout, overwhelming the facilities. PC World, for example, is yet to decide whether it will issue coupons or require receipts for goods purchased before accepting redundant electronics.
"Will we want any evidence? We're not sure yet," says Patterson. "But we might do if people start wheeling stuff out of their sheds and bringing it down."
According to experts, this is one reason why local councils and the distributor take-back scheme run by Valpak have not started advertising their services: fear of being deluged in the opening weeks as householders reclaim the spare room.
Money for old rope
Apart from the warm feeling that comes with doing the right thing for the environment, the WEEE Directive brings little good news for PC users.
The most obvious consequence is likely to be an increase in prices. Stripping the components from an old PC, sorting them into different materials, assessing what can be recycled, then disposing of the hazardous waste in a responsible manner costs money. Someone will have to pay – and we doubt manufacturers will open up their wallets.
The original idea was that producers and retailers would bear the cost of the cleanup operation – mainly because they profit from creating the waste in the first place.
In reality, they will pass the cost on to us.
"There's no margin for extra costs to be absorbed," says Keith Warburton.
"If PC firms are paying to be involved in one of the take-back schemes, that's an additional cost that will have to be built into the price."
Mick Thomas claims that between the sign-up fees for the PCS and the distributor take-back scheme – plus Evesham's portion of the bill from Valpak – its bills for the first quarter of WEEE will come to £28,000.
Faced with such costs, Thomas believes WEEE may force a few companies over the edge.
"It costs around £3.50 to recycle a CRT in a local store, and producers will have built that into the price," he says. "The person that pays the bill is the customer."
Whether consumers will be willing to pay to go green remains to be seen.
A survey conducted by Greenpeace and Ipsos Mori last year suggested that seven out of 10 Britons would pay £93 extra for an environmentally friendly PC.
Retailers, however, argue that adding nearly £100 to the price of a computer would be commercial suicide. Larger companies that can afford to maintain low prices, will benefit from the directive.
Kirstie McIntyre claims HP doesn't envisage passing on any costs to consumers. "We've been recycling for years and it's factored into the price," she says. "If other firms haven't, they've got a lot to sort out."
The greatest cost to consumers might not be price rises but a massive reduction in choice. System builders, retailers and service providers may struggle to compete in an environmentally friendly world.
"We pay proportionally far higher WEEE costs than big operators such as PC World or Dell," said Hendy Armstrong, secretary of Itacs (the Independent Trade Association of Computing Specialists).
"We make £11 selling a TFT screen, but if someone wants us to dispose of their CRT it would cost us £19. We'd lose £8. To make a profit we'd need to charge 25 percent more than our larger rivals, so we'd soon go out of business.
"Then users would end up paying twice as much for maintenance because the small local dealers won't be there, and you'll have to call out technicians from The TechGuys or BT's Home Advisor service."
It's easy to forget one other important aim of WEEE, which is to encourage people to re-use PCs rather than chuck them out.
"We want to get across to people that by donating to charity they are fulfilling their WEEE requirements," says Tony Roberts, CEO of Computer Aid International. "Not only that, but they are extending the life of the PC, which is better for the environment, and contributing to a charity."
Although we discard computers when they start to feel a bit slow, there's usually plenty of life left in them. A surprising number of used computers could be refurbished and put back to work, provided that we don't delay for too long.
"If we get six tonnes of WEEE in charity events, the refurbishers can recycle four tonnes of it," says HP's McIntyre. "But when people finally dispose of old PCs, they've often had them lying idle for ages, and they aren't much use to anyone – even charities don't want anything less than a Pentium II because they're not fit for purpose.
"It's better to donate them or sell them on eBay as soon as you stop using them."
The biggest disappointment for eco-warriers in the UK is that there is no emphasis on making PCs easier to recycle and re-use.
Under the collective responsibility system, where the cost of disposal is split pro rata across the industry, there's little incentive for companies to invest in green components or recycling-friendly manufacturing processes.
"If we were responsible for our own poor decisions, whether design, component selection or manufacturing, we'd be more careful, because it would cost more at the end of the product's life," says McIntyre.
"We've been investing in design so that recycling gets cheaper, and it's galling that we have to pay for collection and recycling for companies that use any old rubbish."
In the long run, such short-sightedness means we are missing out on the chance to use greener components and buy cheaper laptops. For example, if a laptop has a magnesium backlight it costs around £2 to recycle, because the magnesium must be removed first. Recycling a non-magnesium backlit laptop costs just 70p.
Since a non-magnesium backlight adds only 70p to the price of a laptop, it would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly to eliminate the magnesium. But makers are unwilling to do so if they're not going to benefit from lower recycling costs because other firms are using older methods.
"We'd like to take back only our own goods, because we'd be able to keep costs down and feed the benefits back into our products. But you're never going to get people sorting by brand – the costs would be horrific," says PC World's Patterson.
Bottom line: will WEEE work?
The details of WEEE have been under discussion for more than a decade, yet we are already two years late implementing regulations that passed into European law in 2005. Many councils and companies seem unlikely to meet the 1 July deadline.
The chances of everything working smoothly from the off look slim, and experts say the system will take at least a year to settle down. Some local authorities haven't even signed up with compliance schemes.
"Local authorities are an interesting phenomenon, because they might be
trying to wait and see how the financing works out," says Clare Snow.
One local council, Bromley in Kent, says consumers should check to see what WEEE products their local tip will accept. "My advice to consumers would be to check with their local council what arrangements are in place once the directive comes into effect," says Bromley Council's Andrew Rogers.
It all sounds worryingly like seat-of-your-pants management. The next few months could be very interesting indeed.
Changes in production
Researchers at computer companies the world over are beginning to put their minds to making PCs greener, in terms of materials used and how easy they are to dismantle and recycle.
This is not only good for the bottom line, but it makes sound business sense.
"By 2010, 75 percent of our sales will be in markets with WEEE-type regulations – everywhere from Canada and Australia to Dubai and India," says HP's Kirstie McIntyre.
Manufacturers are beginning to think about disassembly early in the design process – anything that makes it quicker and easier to remove components automatically, rather than by hand.
"Designing for recycling is something that's been coming for a long time, and we've been reducing the screws we use, the glue and the hazardous waste," she says.
Rival companies such as Dell are also trying to cut the amount of materials used in their computers. The fewer materials used, the easier they will be to remove and recycle.
A cocktail of plastics, for example, is very difficult to recycle. If plastics are mixed they will degrade when melted down, but if companies use one type of plastic this can be recycled and turned into new laptop cases.
There are plans afoot to make a computer's environmental credentials more transparent. "There are no energy labels on PCs the way there are on washing machines," says PC World's Victoria Patterson.
"People want to see how eco-friendly goods are and what's inside, so a labelling system might make people more aware."