Electricals retailers have found WEEE compliance far from straightforward. Katie Kilgallen asks how they are coping a year on and whether the Government has got the regulations right

A year after it came into force, the UK Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) initiative has been hailed a success by the Government. And it has the statistics to prove it. In the first year, the UK collected 50 per cent over and above the 4kg per person target laid down by the EU directive.

But look behind the numbers and it is clear that not all has gone to plan. July 4 was the extended deadline for the 30-odd producer compliance schemes to meet their individual obligations. The problem is that, by that date, seven had yet to collect enough evidence of having done so. The Government has acknowledged that this disparity is because one scheme, Electrolink, amassed far more evidence than it needed to meet its requirements, in the hope of selling excess evidence on to other schemes at a premium. Following government intervention since July 4, all are now thought to be compliant.

As importers – and sometimes manufacturers – retailers are often classified as producers of electrical equipment and as such are required to join a producer-compliance scheme. Transform – the scheme that DSGi and Home Retail Group are part of, among others – was one of those that failed to gather sufficient evidence.

DSGi operations director for reverse logistics Sarah Geddes says: “There has been a stand-off. It’s been very painful to be involved with when all we are trying to do is recycle product and stop it going to landfill.”

Geddes believes the Government was naïve to set up the schemes to operate in a “free-market environment”. She adds that this could have been avoided if it had considered what happened with packaging waste compliance schemes, where similar stand-offs between compliance schemes have occurred. “It wanted to encourage entrepreneurship and schemes working together, but it didn’t work,” she says.

Gareth Roberts, director of compliance scheme Comply Direct, which met its WEEE obligations in time for the first deadline, agrees. “Those that have a background in packaging waste regulations appear to have met the legislation – they are more wary of the potential consequences,” he explains.

He adds that a decision is needed urgently on how the trading of evidence notes operates. “The Environment Agency and Government have a difficult decision to make and they need to do it quickly,” he says.

Home Retail Group CSR director Laurence Singer agrees that the action the Government takes will be critical. “It has to be very clear as to what obligations compliance schemes have,” he says.

The Government says it is taking these calls to action seriously. BERR (Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform) minister Malcolm Wicks says: “I cannot let any producer-compliance scheme running its own agenda threaten the whole system and will be working with enforcement authorities to ensure that those that wish to distort the system are dealt with effectively.”

The lack of public awareness about WEEE also needs to be addressed. Singer says that, in the UK, consumer engagement lags behind other Europe countries. “I am still not sure there has been enough communication,” he says. Wicks acknowledges that there is more work to be done and BERR intends to launch an awareness campaign towards the end of the year.

Despite this, there is no doubt that progress is being made. Geddes says that DSGi’s own in-store take-back scheme – which it has launched in order to meet its obligation as a distributor under the legislation – has gone “phenomenally well”. “We’ve collected more than we thought we would,” she says.

Singer says that manufacturers and suppliers should be aware that retailers are taking their obligations seriously. “We won’t source a product where we don’t have a producer WEEE registration number. Suppliers should be alerted that retailers are asking those questions,” he explains.

As with the WEEE directive, the legislation following the EU battery recycling directive has been delayed. Originally due to come into force in September, many now believe it will be early next year at the earliest.

Many retailers will be obliged to take back dead batteries in stores and, as with WEEE, many will be classified as producers under the legislation and as such have separate obligations. Various compliance schemes are up and running already. Through Comply Direct, Roberts operates an early-bird scheme for those that want to get ahead of the game. Argos, meanwhile, has taken part in WRAP’s (Waste & Resources Action Programme) take-back trial.

Singer is confident that Home Retail Group is well-prepared, but is mindful that there could be some issues if the Government doesn’t get it right. “In-store take-back isn’t causing us many problems. The main issue is going to be with compliance schemes – the Government needs to learn lessons from WEEE,” he says.

Again, a lack of public engagement may prove to be an issue, particularly given the ambitious battery recycling targets – 25 per cent by 2012 and 45 per cent by 2016. At present, just 3 per cent are recycled.

The WEEE legislation is both needed and well-intentioned – and there is no denying that retailers are taking their obligations seriously. But there is much to be done to ensure processes aid, rather than distract from, the objective. As Roberts says: “They [the Government] sometimes forget the goals, which is to change the way products are designed, use less hazardous chemicals and decrease the amount going to landfill – we sometimes get bogged down in legislation.”