Europe may be overreaching with its environmental compliance laws. Don’t get me wrong. I believe state, federal, and international environmental regulations are good. Without them, do you really think recycling programs would have created themselves or organizations would have willingly stopped producing devices containing harmful substances?
But then a story in The Economist reminded me of the inherent difficulties in managing green rules, particularly Europe’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. The Economist article claims:
- WEEE is the fastest growing garbage problem in Europe… Annual generation of unwanted TVs, computers, mobile phones, kettles, refrigerators and the like, far outstrips the ability to collect and recycle it. By 2020 Europeans will be creating more than 12 million tonnes [sic] annually.
WEEE, which has been in force since early 2003, restricts the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment (banning things like lead, mercury, and cadmium) and ensures the creation of collection schemes that allow consumers to return their used e-waste free of charge, according to the European Commission.
By the EC’s own estimates, only one-third of the region’s electrical and electronic waste is reported as separately collected and appropriately treated, despite the legislation. As the EC notes on its Website:
- A part of the other two thirds is potentially still going to landfills and to sub-standard treatment sites in or outside the European Union. The collection target of 4 kilograms per person per year does not properly reflect the amount of WEEE arising in individual Member States. Illegal trade of electrical and electronic waste to non-EU countries continues to be identified at EU borders.
Astounding isn’t it? Even Europe — where many member countries have incredibly progressive stances on environmental protection, recycling, and renewable energy — can’t get a handle on its own idealistic ambitions.
As if that weren’t enough, the European Council will temper near-term collection targets. In February, the European Parliament initially proposed a 2012 e-waste collection target of the greater of either the existing level of e-waste per inhabitant (4kg) or the same weight as in 2010; by 2016 that number, the parliament expects, could climb to 85 percent of the e-waste produced, according to an article in the Green IT Review. However, in March, the European Council, which must weigh in on legislation, reduced the proposed 2016 target from 85 percent to 45 percent, and it's moving the 2020 target to 65 percent, according to the article.
On one hand, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that rules like this only work if people and companies actually follow them, or if a stern enforcement authority “compels” compliance.
There seems to be some degree of enforcement, and wrongdoers are coming before tribunals for breaking the law. A few weeks ago, eWEEK Europe UK reported that 14 defendants appeared in a British court and pleaded not guilty or entered “no plea” responses to charges of illegally exporting electrical waste from the UK to developing countries. The Website said the defendants were a mix of companies and private individuals. While the accused are slated to return to court in October, I did raise my skeptical eyebrows and ask: For every person caught, how many get away with it?
Flipping the coin, I can't totally blame the enforcement gap as the sole culprit in missing take-back targets. Clearly, there has not been enough economic motivation to add teeth to the feel-good, do-good, protect-the-planet regulations. If consumers don't have to pay for these services, and companies cry about the hefty price tags associated with following various versions of these laws worldwide, legislation will continue to go only so far. It seems to me, now's the time for business and government to reexamine the financial models and come up with realistic goals.
For sure, social good doesn't have to mean crafting totally non-profitable models. There are plenty of opportunities to cash in while addressing the bigger issue of collecting what we’ve made, used, and no longer need.
British recycling firm Sunersol provides an example. The company began trading in the fourth quarter of 2010 and had secured in excess of 20,000 tons of WEEE through contracts before its official launch, noted a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post. So far, it has created 40 new jobs and plans to offer dozens more in the near future.
This all raises the obvious question: Can we save the planet, make products safer, and still live up to, not just regulated ideals, but moral ones?