Electric shock

An EU directive could mean that we'll have to pay to have our old TV or computer recycled. Is this good news for the environment, asks Charlotte Ricca, or misguided meddling?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Recycling is great isn't it? For a minimal amount of effort you get to save the planet, and rid yourself of any middle-class angst you may be harbouring about that petrol-thirsty car parked on your driveway. But would you still be so keen on going green if recycling all your electrical items became mandatory – and taxes went up to pay for it?

Recycling is great isn't it? For a minimal amount of effort you get to save the planet, and rid yourself of any middle-class angst you may be harbouring about that petrol-thirsty car parked on your driveway. But would you still be so keen on going green if recycling all your electrical items became mandatory – and taxes went up to pay for it?

Just think: all those musical birthday cards you happily drop straight into the bin would need sorting out, along with your bottles, paper, AA batteries....

So why the sudden interest in our rubbish? According to the Department of Trade and Industry, concerns about the leaching of hazardous materials into the environment have been on the agenda for some time, but the debate has only just reached the public domain.

"A Brussels-led initiative that hopes to reduce the amount of harmful waste in landfills has been ongoing for the past six years," explains Eyo Ansa, the DTI's Recycling Policy Adviser. "Many companies are already following the regulations in preparation for its arrival, but we don't expect it to come into force for at least 18 months."

When it does, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive aims to reduce waste by collecting and recycling around 70 per cent of end-of-life electrical equipment. That's no small task when you consider that Britain produces more than one million tons of electrical waste each year and, according to Ansa, the costs incurred will be between £167m and £340m – something the manufacturers will not be too keen to pay for themselves.

"Producers are not going to cut their profit margin, so the only way forward is for prices to go up," states Claire Snow, the director of the Industry Council for Electronic Industry Recycling. "And by the time the consumer notices, it will be too late to lobby."

Prices will probably rise with the inclusion of a "visible fee" – a tagged part of the price that will go directly towards funding the recycling process. By getting the consumer to pay up front, the logic goes, fly-tipping is not made more attractive when the goods are finished with – unlike charging after use for proper disposal.

Other options being considered would involve consumers putting their hands deeper into their pockets. The one most likely to cause a British backlash is a DTI suggestion to increase taxes; at least the "visible fee" means the consumer chooses to buy a product and, therefore, takes responsibility for the disposal of that product. But paying tax would mean that self-confessed gadget lovers and technophobes alike would all be charged.

I spoke to Sony, one of the largest producers of television sets in the world and thus fully aware of its own contribution towards the costs of recycling. "We would like to see historic waste – that is, goods sold prior to the directive – covered by a fee from the consumer," explains Peter Evans, senior manager of environment for Sony Visual Products Europe.

"So when purchasing a new product, the consumer would pay a small contribution towards this recycling." In other words, Sony refuses to see its profits drop, but expects the British consumer to pay increasingly inflated prices. But what price the earth? Around €12 (£8), according to Philips Electronics, which has already successfully implemented a visible fee scheme in the Netherlands, and estimates this to be the cost of recycling a television. It has also introduced a take-back system, where the retailer is obliged to dispose of a product similar to the one being purchased. Consumers can also dump electrical goods at their tip, or get them collected by their local authorities.

The UK high street chain Dixons, however, is less keen to drive up its prices and believes that as long as the recycling chain is efficient there should be no additional costs. It has already set up a successful initiative called Create in Liverpool and Tottenham, which trains the long-term unemployed to clean up and sell the company's used electronics, and where necessary, pass them on to a recycling plant.

But no matter how our recycling is paid for, the growing number of landfills around the UK containing potentially hazardous materials is an issue we should all be very concerned about.

"Ultimately it is all about leaching," says David Walker, the managing director of Tech Waste. "There are loads of electrical products that leach different elements, so all sorts of different nasties end up in our water table. In years to come these are going to be impossible or at best, very expensive, to remove."

The worst candidate for leaching is the lead and other metals contained in glass found in televisions and cathode-ray tube monitors, which become even more dangerous when crushed. Currently eight million cathode-ray tube monitors are junked each year, each containing an average of 2kg of lead; that's 16,000 tons of lead alone, often embedded in the glass and surfaces, every year. But Snow points out that it is in recyclers' interests to scare us into using their services.

"It's impossible to quantify leaching, and no one really know what damage has been done over the past 50 years," she says. "Yes, leaching is currently one concern and a reason why it is good to recycle, but not everything covered by the directive is a problem. Sometimes it is just the loss of potential resource, such as metal, that makes it almost criminal to throw away, and sometimes things don't need recycling at all."

But even if we recycle responsibly, how do we know that the companies we send our junk to are doing the same? One major deterrent is that dangerous materials such as lead found in cathode-ray tubes cost money to recycle – something not all companies are prepared to pay for.

A worker at one recycling plant told me that many send their monitors to Eastern Europe, as labour is so cheap, where they repair what they can and simply dump the rest. Similarly, thousands of tons of waste are shipped to China – again to save costs.

"If you fill a 40-ft container full of rubbish and properly process it, it will cost you £9,000, but you can ship it over to Asia for £2,000," the recycling worker said. "Everyone knows this goes on, but no one does anything about it because it's not illegal."

Not yet anyway. Another directive to be brought out this year for the Restriction of Hazardous Substances will see the prevention of cross-border waste transfer – and an end to such practices.

Under this directive all our electrical goods will end in the recycling loop. And we, the consumer, will fork out for things that often don't even benefit the environment. In fact, they could have a detrimental effect, due to the resources used when recycling. And with electronic goods representing less than 1 per cent of household waste, maybe we should be turning our attention to the other 99.

"We've got the whole world to protect, so how much money do we want to throw down this route? And how much at the ozone, and energy and de-forestation?" says Snow. "We've got to keep it all in perspective – and look at what does the most damage and not just spend money for the sake of it."