One of the most common misconceptions about the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which comes into effect next July, is that the regulations will have no real impact on IT directors.
In theory the "polluter pays principle" governing the new law should mean that it is hardware vendors that bear the cost of compliance and face the fines if they breach the new rules – all their corporate customers will have to do is be ready for their supplier to come and collect end of life equipment.
But while this is largely the case there are circumstances under which IT departments will have to comply with the new regulations or face legal consequences.
"If you buy 12 new computers you have the right to return 12 old PCs on a like-for-like basis," explained Paul James, general manager of environmental compliance solutions at DHL, the delivery firm which hopes to be heavily involved in the collection of WEEE. "But all firms have a lot of old kit lying around that and as they aren’t replacing it, it won’t be covered by like-for-like take back. You'll have a responsibility to dispose of it legally yourself."
Earlier this year the Environment Agency confirmed that this is indeed the case and while the bulk of the responsibility for compliance will fall on manufacturers their corporate customers will face some obligations.
Another major concern is a clause in the legislation that allows IT manufacturers to change the terms and conditions of purchase and effectively waive their responsibility to collect end of life equipment, passing responsibility for disposal onto their customers.
"Some vendors are very green and already offer free takeback," said James. "But at the low end of the market we may see some try to pass the responsibility onto the customer."
James warned that any firm tempted to agree to such terms, maybe in return for a lower price, needs to think about the massive paper trail that compliance with WEEE requires and the associated cost and legal risk that now comes with IT disposal.
"WEEE is going to impact all procurement decisions," he predicted. "At the moment procurement is based on functionality and cost, but you will need to add end of life service to that equation."
A spokeswoman for DEFRA said that the clause was a directive requirement that could not be avoided and that it had been developed to give firms flexibility in how they comply with the ruling. She agreed that IT purchasers needed to be aware of the situation and pay attention to terms and conditions governing disposal when buying new IT kit.
However, Graham Davy, managing director of recycling specialist Sims said that this message had not reached many firms. "There is a real miscommunication issue with WEEE because it is so complex and there have been so many different versions," he said. "We really do seem to be turning a silk purse into a sow's ear… it is hardly surprising that mid sized firms will struggle to understand the regulations."
He added that firms should look to take expert advice on WEEE compliance and start to consider disposal as a factor in IT procurement decisions.
Separately, there are growing concerns that less than nine months before the legislation passes into law there are still doubts over what constitutes WEEE.
Under the current proposals any equipment dubbed "fixed installation" is not affected by the directive, but critics claim the term is too ambiguous. "One definition of 'fixed' is 'that which you wouldn’t take with you when you move offices'," said James. "But I spoke to someone recently who said CCTV systems weren't fixed installation as you’d take them with you if you moved. Well we moved offices recently and didn’t take the CCTV system, so does it count or doesn’t it?"
Clarification on what constitutes "fixed installation" is expected in the final version of the directive, due to be published next month. But given the controversy that has followed the legislation for the past few years, confusion surrounding it seems set to continue up to and beyond its appearance on the statute book next July.
Europe's biggest bank announces intention to halt financing for coal-fired power plants as part of low-carbon drive - but lists Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam as exceptions
Canadian company EnviroLeach wants to make the process of "urban mining" less hazardous for humans and the environment
Launched this week, Daisy helps dissemble iPhones for reuse and recycling
No coal was used for power generation in the UK between 10.25pm on Monday and 5.10am yesterday, National Grid confirms