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issue: September 2004 APPLIANCE Magazine

Misdirected Directives–Part 1

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Editorial From Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

If the terms WEEE and RoHS look more like alphabet soup to you than official European Union directives, you’re not alone. Much of the confusion, however, has nothing to do with the acronyms.

Lisa Bonnema, Editor, APPLIANCE Magazine

In fact, the names may be the only parts of the directives that are clear to the manufacturing industry—both in Europe and globally. Both WEEE and RoHS seem to be victims of what some believe is a very slow-moving, nontransparent government system that is ignoring the needs and requests of industry. Sure, there are always questions surrounding how industry will successfully comply with new standards once they are in place. But that’s not the issue in this case. The issue here is clearly defining what exactly industry needs to comply with and who needs to comply.

The most disturbing part of all of this is that these directives are currently in place and will require full compliance in the next 1 to 2 years (WEEE in August 2005 and RoHS in July 2006). Furthermore, the Member State transposition work on both items is supposed to be complete by the time you’re reading this. And although APPLIANCE couldn’t get a confirmed number of EU Member States that met the Aug. 13, 2004 deadline, at press time, most industry experts agreed that it certainly wouldn’t be the majority, if not only a handful, of states.

The laundry list of problems with both directives is long. Therefore, this editorial is actually the first part of a two-part series on the topic. As I dove deeper into the specifics, it became clear that touching on even just some of the key issues surrounding both directives in one short editorial would be close to impossible. Therefore, this editorial will focus on WEEE, and next month’s editorial will focus on RoHS.

The Problem with WEEE

Directive 2002/96/EC on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) puts the responsibility of cost, collection, treatment, and recovery of appliances and other electronic devices on European “producers” of such products. As reported in a previously published Appliance Line (Recycle America?, July 2002), the long-term goal of WEEE is to encourage “producers” to design products with this in mind, which will reduce waste and help the environment.

If you haven’t already guessed, the term “producer” is the first problem. In a prepared document, CECED, the association representing European appliance makers, says “the word ‘producer’ is not specific enough to designate the responsibilities and obligations given by the directive to the concerned economic operators.” CECED also says the definition does not exclude multiple producers for one and the same product, leaving several companies responsible for one product.

Specifically, CECED claims the Directive makes no distinction between manufacturers that design products and put them on the European market and those who merely sell products in the market. For example, if a product is made in Germany, but sold in Belgium by another company, who gets the invoice? Another key question is the level at which the term “producer” is being defined. Industry believes the Directive is unclear as to whether the various obligations affect companies that are placing products on the EU single market or companies that sell products in single Member States.

If the Directive obligates companies placing the products on the EU single market, CECED believes it would lead to “distorted situations” in Member States, depending on how many manufacturers/importers there are in each Member State. On the other hand, if companies selling products in individual Member States are responsible, CECED says both the implementation logistics and financial requirements for compliance would become extremely difficult, if not impossible, to handle.

And the ambiguity is already causing some very real confusion. Draft versions of national laws are defining “producers” as those who import products into individual member states. “So you have the national laws defining ‘producer’ nationally, and you have the Directive defining the producers the European [single market] way,” explains Pascal Leroy, Governmental Affairs manager for CECED. “There is a tension between these two elements, and as a chief executive or corporate auditor…you don’t know how to manage your liabilities because you don’t know whether it is actually you as the headquarters that has to manage them or if it is your national subsidiaries.”

This lack of legal clarity, Mr. Leroy continues, makes it extremely difficult for companies to comply with the individual producer responsibility (IPR) principal portion of the Directive, which as of August 2005 holds individual companies responsible for each unit put on the market. “How do you manage those liabilities when you are responsible for each and every unit?” Mr. Pascal asks. “How do you know that in the year 2015, in 10 years time, how many products have come back as waste?”

So what is the solution? CECED proposes that the legally responsible party be “whoever, after August 13, 2005, puts a product on the European single market, as a manufacturer, importer into the European Community, or reseller under their own brand.” The association also proposes to reserve the national or individual member state approach for “historical WEEE” (products made before the 2005 deadline), which would require collective responsibility. The EC single market approach, under the IPR principle, would then be applied to non-historical WEEE (products made after the 2005 deadline).

As far as the logistics surrounding tracking WEEE products falling under the Directive, CECED maintains that there is currently no economically feasible tool available that “producers” can use to effectively comply with the IPR principle. Therefore, the association is proposing that until an officially recognized tool for managing liabilities is available to producers, all products continue to be treated as “historical waste.” That would mean, of course, postponing implementation of the IPR principle.

Got all that? Well, details aside, what you’ll really find interesting is that CECED first approached the Commission a whopping 3 years ago to address these very same issues. I’m sure you’re asking the same question I did—why in the world would you pass a directive when industry is clearly pointing out loopholes and then continue to ignore them as deadlines quickly approach?

“ The Technical Adaptation Committee, which is a European Committee consisting of member state representatives and presided over by the Commission, doesn’t really listen to industry,” Mr. Leroy admits. “It is difficult to get hold of official documents and to be involved in the process or to be informed. That is what is very frustrating. Because after all, we are not talking about a directive which mainly impacts the member states and which has a marginal influence on industry. No, we are a talking about directives which directly impact manufacturers and which really require manufacturers’ involvement to work properly.”

The end result is that most member states won’t be able to meet the transposition deadline, and if and when they do, the laws will be based on a directive that will leave many questions unanswered. “Everybody knows that only a handful of member states will have transposed by the 13th of August,” says Mr. Leroy.

At this point, he adds, industry just wants some sort of answer. “We would of course prefer our own definition,” Mr. Leroy admits, “but we would really prefer a timely definition than no definition at all.”

I think that’s fairly reasonable, don’t you? Until next month…


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