WEEE update: Tricks of the trade

Scott Butler, Regional Director at the European Recycling Platform, comments on how the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership will impact WEEE standards.

Still at the negotiation stage, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has already aroused a lot of controversy. Opponents claim that the proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States will erode standards and shift power away from national governments to large corporations. The European Commission (EC) and UK government counter such claims by stating that TTIP will safeguard, and even strengthen, regulatory standards. They also point to the economic and employment benefits that the agreement will bring.

A major criticism levelled at TTIP has been the secrecy shrouding the negotiations and, with a deal not expected to be finalised before the end of 2016, specifics are still thin on the ground. However, if we take a look at the producer responsibility legislation that has been in force in the European Union since the ’90s, and compare this with the situation in the United States, we can see that vast differences exist between the world’s largest trading partners in this area alone.

According to the report Development of Guidance on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which Deloitte produced for the EC in 2014, the EU has over 250 pieces of legislation governing over 100 million tonnes of waste, spanning all streams from tyres to waste electronics. As of 2014, to focus on WEEE alone, 24 states had passed e-waste laws in the United States. This e-waste legislation differed from state to state in terms of who the laws applied to and the products covered.

‘Inside TTIP’, the EC’s guide to the trade agreement, addresses regulatory cooperation and has a specific chapter on information and communication technologies (ICT). This chapter states: ‘The EU will not compromise on safety standards. We want to align technical requirements where possible while maintaining high levels of safety. We want to foster the use of global standards.’ This aim throws up some interesting possibilities: could the European Union’s complex web of producer responsibility legislation be exported to the United States and help to foster a more coordinated, federal approach there? Alternatively, could the United States decide to adopt a simpler form of extended producer responsibility legislation, streamlining the EU’s 250 regulations into leaner, more focused laws?

This article was taken from Issue 82

One area where the US may have been more effective than Europe so far has been in the introduction of product standards that cover the entire lifecycle of a product from design through to end-of-life management. The Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) is one of the most prevalent quality labels in the United States. EPEAT famously caused Apple, under pressure from customers and the City of San Francisco, to reverse a decision that it had made to withdraw from the environmental rating scheme (which it helped to create) after introducing new laptops. A stated aim of the EU’s recast WEEE Directive was to promote the use of such a standard in Europe, but the UK and others have been sluggish in implementing the WEEE Label of Excellence (WEEELabex), a potential EPEAT equivalent. This example of consumer and local government-led pressure on producers to manufacture environmentally- friendly products and services could also prove to be a highly effective foil should TTIP fail to deliver the EU’s goal of fostering global standards.

Finally, we must hope that TTIP will be in harmony with and support the EU’s impending Circular Economy Package. We have a unique chance to design and build a circular economy that will promote environmental and consumer protection, global competitiveness, investment and innovation. Personally, I will be keeping a close eye on TTIP to ensure that its goals are the same.