Select Committee on European Scrutiny First Report


The European Scrutiny Committee has made progress in the matter referred to it and has agreed to the following Report:—


COM(00) 347

Draft Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment; and
draft Directive on the restriction on the use of certain hazardous
substances in electrical and electronic equipment.

Legal base: (a) Article 175 EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
(b) Article 95 EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Department: Trade and Industry
Basis of consideration: Minister's letter and EM of 7 December 2000
Previous consideration: HC 23-xxix (1999-2000), paragraph 11 (15 November 2000)
To be discussed in Council: 18-19 December 2000
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: For debate in European Standing Committee C


  1.1  As we noted in our Report of 15 November 2000, waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is identified in the Community's Fifth Environmental Action Programme[9] as one of the target areas for prevention, recovery and safe disposal, and the need for action in this area has been endorsed by Resolutions of both the Council and the European Parliament.

  1.2  According to the Commission, there are a number of reasons why WEEE presents particular problems. First, components tend to include heavy metals; halogenated substances (CFCs); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); polyvinyl chloride (PVC); brominated flame retardants; and asbestos and arsenic. Since more than 90% of WEEE is landfilled, incinerated or recovered without any pre-treatment, the Commission is concerned that it accounts for a large proportion of the hazardous materials in the waste stream. Secondly, it is concerned that the decreasing life-span of much of the equipment has led to a rapid growth of WEEE, equivalent to about three times that of municipal waste in general. Thirdly, it sees the proliferation of national measures in this area as hampering the effectiveness of national recycling policies; as leading to substantial disparities in the financial burdens for economic operators; and as having implications for trade in electrical and electronic equipment.

  1.3  The Commission therefore brought forward in June 2000 two proposals. The first of these aims to reduce the amount of such waste from electrical equipment[10], and to encourage its recycling and recovery. In order to achieve this, it suggests:

  • that producers should take financial responsibility for certain phases of the waste management of their products, thereby creating an economic incentive for them to adapt product design to the prerequisites of sound waste management;

  • that separate collection of WEEE should be ensured through appropriate systems;

  • that producers should set up appropriate systems for the improved treatment and reuse/recycling of WEEE; and

  • that adequate information should be provided to consumers about the systems and their role in it.

  1.4  More specifically, it proposes that:

  • Member States should be required to ensure that systems are set up so that final holders and distributors can return waste from private households free of charge;

  • Member States should aim to achieve by 31 December 2005 an annual collection target from households of 4 kg per head, with a compulsory target being set in due course;

  • producers should be required to set up treatment systems of a specified standard using authorised recyclers and treatment operators;

  • reuse, recycling and recovery targets should be set for certain categories of electrical waste, to be achieved by 31 December 2005;

  • producers should be required to meet, within five years of the Directive coming into force, the costs of collecting electrical waste from central collection points, and the treatment, recovery and environmentally-sound disposal of end-of-life equipment from households;

  • Member States should be required to ensure that the public is informed about collection systems and their role in contributing to the recovery of WEEE; and

  • producers should be required to provide information to treatment facilities and recyclers to identify the components and materials and the location of dangerous substances within the equipment.

  1.5  However, the Commission believes that, even if these measures were to be adopted, there would still be some environmental risk, and that substitutes for the most dangerous substances should be used wherever possible. Its second proposal would therefore harmonise the rules on the restriction of the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment by:

  • requiring the use of substitutes for mercury, lead, cadmium, hexavalent chromium and PPB and PBDE flame retardants from 1 January 2008;

  • providing exemptions to this requirement where the use of these substances is unavoidable, or where their substitutes would have greater negative impacts on health or the environment; and

  • setting up a Community procedure to amend these exemptions in the light of advances in scientific knowledge or technical progress, and to establish maximum levels to which the presence of the substances would be tolerated in specific materials and components.

  1.6  As regards the wider policy implications of these two proposals, the Commission says that it has sought to take into account subsidiarity concerns by leaving Member States flexibility over collection, treatment and financing systems for managing WEEE, and that it is only introducing obligations necessary to achieve environmental objectives. It also considers that the proposals complement Community legislation in such areas as the disposal of waste through landfill and incineration, on specific waste streams, such as batteries, and on measures contributing towards meeting the Community's climate change objectives.

  1.7  The Commission puts the net cost of the collecting and re-using/recycling requirements for household WEEE as between 500 million and 900 million euros a year, though these figures assume that Member States are not already undertaking their own initiatives, and make no allowance for such factors as economies of scale. It also suggests that, since a number of manufacturers have already phased out heavy metals and flame retardants, the cost of the second proposal could perhaps be limited to about 150 million euros a year.

  1.8  In her Explanatory Memoranda of 2 October, the Minister for Small Business and E-Commerce at the Department of Trade and Industry (Ms Patricia Hewitt) said that the first proposal is in line with the Government's national waste strategies, and with the voluntary collection schemes already operated by a number of the sectors concerned. As a consequence, she considered that the 4 kg per head collection target is probably already exceeded in this country. However, she also identified a number of issues of potential concern, notably that some of the provisions may be difficult to implement, and that the measures (whose costs and benefits have not been fully assessed) are likely to impose "significant" burdens on business. The Government is therefore looking at the extent to which the provisions are appropriate. In the meantime, an initial Regulatory Impact Assessment suggests that the annual costs might lie between £540 and £545 million, with one-off costs of between £7.3 and £8.6 million. The associated benefits have proved more difficult to quantify, but the Assessment suggests that some aspects of the Directive may encourage collection, whilst others (such as the cost of meeting recycling targets) may have the opposite effect. It adds that the environmental benefits of the treatment and recovery requirements laid down are likely to vary widely between items. The Minister also highlighted the possible subsidiarity implications of the proposal, but, although she said that the Government accepts that "some" action at Community level may be desirable, she did not specify what.

  1.9  On the second proposal, the Minister said that the Government agrees that, where product standards and requirements are set, these should be harmonised, and she considered that reducing the hazardous content of electrical and electronic equipment could lessen the potential for any environmental impacts resulting from their disposal. That said, she identified the main issues for the UK arising from the proposal as being:

  • the need for adequate risk assessment and cost benefit analyses; and

  • the possibility that there may be circumstances where the continued use of these substances is justified, for example where switching to others could have adverse implications.

  1.10  The Minister also supplied an initial Regulatory Impact Assessment for this proposal, which made the point that, although the use of these substances is declining, production of electrical and electronic equipment is increasing, making it difficult to assess accurately either the costs or the benefits of the action proposed. She suggested that the benefits from any further measures to limit hazardous substances within the UK may be limited, but said that, depending on the lead-in time allowed, the costs have been estimated by industry as being as high as £1.2 billion on a one-off basis, with (unquantified) on-going costs arising from the use of more expensive materials or increased energy use.

  1.11  In the conclusion to our Report, we commented that these are obviously potentially significant proposals on which considerable uncertainties arise as to the relative costs and benefits. For that reason, we said that we would not be able to take a view on them until we had seen the updated Regulatory Impact Assessments we assumed the Minister would be providing. We said that we would also like to see answers on the matters which she herself had raised (and which are summarised in paragraphs 1.8 and 1.9 above).

  1.12  In the meantime, we said that there was one fundamental question on which we would welcome the Government's views. The Minister's Explanatory Memorandum had suggested that implementation of the first of these proposals would lessen the potential for environmental harm, and so reduce the possible gains from the second. However, it seemed to us that the converse might equally be true, in that limiting the inclusion of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment would reduce the need for the various measures set out in the first proposal. We further suggested that prevention of this kind would be not only preferable in principle to the sort of cure proposed here, but also consistent with the priorities in the Community's overall waste management strategy.

Minister's letter and Explanatory Memoranda of 7 December 2000

  1.13  We have now received from the Minister a letter of 7 December 2000, and two revised Explanatory Memoranda of the same date (to which are attached revised Regulatory Impact Assessments). The letter seeks to address the points in our previous Report, whilst the Explanatory Memoranda identify the changes which have been made in the proposals since the Minister's earlier Memoranda of 2 October as a result of discussions in Brussels.

  1.14  As regards the implementation of the measure, the Minister says that the Government has consulted widely over the last few months, but that, although this has yielded "some useful information", most respondents were unable to provide any indication of costs. She suggests that this reflects the complexity of the provisions and the uncertainty surrounding them, and says that her department is now trying to identify individual respondents and to consult them separately. However, she also highlights the extent to which the companies concerned have stressed the need for enough time to cope with any product design changes made necessary by these measures; the concerns which have been expressed about the feasibility of the recovery, reuse and recycling targets envisaged in the proposal; and the concerns from the voluntary sector that, if whole products which are reused are not counted towards these targets, this could result in a disincentive to reuse. So far as subsidiarity is concerned, the Minister essentially repeats the points in her earlier Explanatory Memoranda (and set out in paragraph 1.16 of our Report of 15 November 2000), but does not directly address the question in the conclusion to that Report. In answer to our question about the relative emphasis to be placed on the two measures proposed, she states that the two directives would be complementary, and that the measure restricting the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment is intended to make their treatment, recovery and recycling easier (and cheaper) and also to help reduce their general impact on the environment.

  1.15  The format of the revised Explanatory Memoranda and Regulatory Impact Assessments makes it extremely difficult to identify the amendments which have taken place over the last two months or so, but, so far as we can discern, the main changes to the first proposal relate to the implementation periods allowed. Thus, the collection target for household waste would have to be achieved within 36 months of the entry into force of the Directive, instead of by 31 December 2005 (which could in practice lead to a year's reduction in the time allowed). There would be similar changes in the timetable for attaining the various reuse, recycling and recovery targets, and in the time within which producers would have to meet the costs of collecting WEEE from central collection points and the treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal of end of life equipment from households. However, these amendments would apparently give rise to only small changes in the earlier cost estimates.

  1.16  The Minister adds that the UK might not be able, in the foreseeable future, to reach the high levels proposed in the Directive for all products. She also identifies as problem areas the large number of household products to which the measure would apply and the disproportionately high costs for small businesses. In view of this, she says that the UK intends to push for the option of derogations "if future evidence demonstrates a strong case for removing specific products", and for "an option to eliminate producer responsibility for the smallest manufacturers".

  1.17  So far as the second proposal on limiting hazardous substances is concerned, the Minister says that it has been suggested that there should be a derogation for lead in solder used for printed circuit boards, and some relaxation as regards mercury used in fluorescent lamps and hexavalent chromium used in anti-corrosion coatings.

  1.18  Finally, the Minister has addressed in her letter the handling of these proposals in Brussels. She says that they are due to be discussed at the meeting of the Environment Council on 18-19 December, at which the Presidency is hoping to achieve a political agreement. She adds that it would strengthen the UK's ability to have its views fully considered if Parliamentary clearance had been given, and she therefore asks us to give this before the Council meeting.


  1.19  As we have already noted in paragraphs 1.11 and 1.12 above, our Report of 15 November 2000 highlighted the considerable uncertainties surrounding these proposals, and the need both for updated Regulatory Impact Assessments and for answers on some of the matters which the Minister herself had raised, notably on the implementation of the proposals and on subsidiarity. It would appear from the latest material provided by the Minister that major uncertainties still exist, and that these have, if anything, increased as a result of pressures to shorten the implementation periods laid down.

  1.20  In view of this, it would, in our opinion, be premature to lift the scrutiny reserve, and we are not convinced by the Minister's explanation of why this is necessary. In the first place, a parliamentary reserve is now a familiar part of the negotiating process in Brussels, and is not peculiar to the UK. Consequently, we see no reason why the existence of such a reserve need inhibit a UK Minister from participating fully in any discussion in the Council, short of reaching an agreement. Secondly, whatever the Presidency may say, the reality is that these proposals have yet to be considered by the European Parliament, and there seems no imperative for the Council to reach an agreement, political or otherwise, at this stage; indeed, given all the uncertainties which still exist, we consider it would be unwise to contemplate this.

  1.21  We also believe that the issues raised by these proposals are ones which it would be right for the House to consider before there is any question of an agreement being reached in Brussels. We are therefore recommending them for debate in European Standing Committee C.

9   OJ No. C 138, 17.5.93. Back

10  Defined for this purpose as large and small household appliances; IT and telecommunications equipment; consumer and lighting equipment; electrical and electronic goods; toys; certain medical equipment systems; monitoring and control instruments; and automatic dispensers. Back

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