Circular economy: 4 regulatory themes on reducing e-waste

Producers and end-users of electric and electronic equipment need to be able to deal with e-waste and achieve a circular economy.

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by Yujing Pan

Nowadays, it is hard to think about daily life without electric and electronic equipment (EEE). Consequently, waste generated from these types of equipment is growing exponentially, which has become a major environmental concern. Proper and collective solutions can go a long way to developing circular e-waste management and, thereafter, a circular and sustainable economy. These proper and collective solutions are undoubtedly led by EEE producers. However, there are also some areas where end-users are expected to do their part. We outline key regulatory developments that companies, either as a producer or a user of EEE, should consider:

1. A step closer towards a circular economy

A product should have a reasonable lifetime. This means even when it’s in defect, it should get a chance to be repaired before being discarded. While repair appreciates the limited resources contained in the products in use, it is also about extending the value of the products for as long as possible by only replacing those defective or broken components, instead of the products as a whole.

The EU is seeking to make it easier for consumers to fix their products, and to increase the repair and reuse of products purchased by consumers, so that products can last longer, and less waste is generated.

On 23 March 2023, the European Commission launched a public consultation on the draft Right to Repair Directive, which is considered one of the key initiatives in a circular economy.

Among others, producers would be required to repair, when there is a consumer request, covered products, including, for example, refrigerating appliances, electronic displays, mobile phones, tablets, and data storage products. The repair would have to be done for free or against a price, unless the repair is unfeasible.

Information on the obligation to repair and repair services should also be communicated to consumers by producers. This information would have to be provided in an easily accessible, clear and comprehensible manner, for instance, through a new online platform that would be set by the Member States if the proposal is adopted.

Moreover, producers of the covered products would have to provide independent repairers with spare parts, repair-related information, and tools.

2. Batteries in e-waste are what concern lawmakers the most

While an effort is being made to prolong the lifetime of EEE, more countries are dedicated to managing e-waste in an environmentally friendly way, by imposing more requirements for producers of EEE, including their parts, especially batteries.

Notably, in Washington, US, companies that manufacture and sell portable batteries or products containing them would be required to participate in and fund a stewardship organization that implements a stewardship plan approved by the Department of Ecology (DOE) by 1 January 2027. Same requirements would apply to manufacturers and sellers of medium format batteries or products containing them as of 1 January 2029.

The Senate Bill 5144 passed by the Senate of the state of Washington on 7 March 2023 also specified that the funding by the companies would have to cover battery collection, transportation, and processing, education and outreach, program evaluation and administrative fees to DOE.

These companies would also have to dispose of unwanted batteries through designated collection locations stated in the stewardship program.

Further, the Bill would only allow, beginning 1 January 2028, companies to sell, distribute, or offer for sale portable batteries, medium-format batteries, large-format batteries, and products containing them that are properly labeled, identifying the chemistry and indicating the battery must not be disposed of as household waste.

Also focusing on waste batteries, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment of South Africa published the Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme for the Portable Battery Sector (the “EPR Scheme”) on 23 March 2023.

The EPR Scheme requires producers of portable batteries, which result in waste from consumers or end users, to establish and implement extended producer responsibility (EPR) measures. These measures include, among others, the collection, transport, storing, recycling, and recovery of the produced portable batteries in the post-consumer stage, in compliance with the Extended Producer Responsibility Regulations, 2020.

According to the EPR Scheme, a “portable battery” means a sealed battery that can be hand-carried without difficulty (excluding automotive and industrial batteries). At the moment, the EPR Scheme applies to the following types of portable batteries:

  • alkaline/zinc-carbon batteries;
  • primary (single-use) lithium batteries;
  • nickel metal hydride batteries;
  • silver oxide batteries; and
  • zinc air batteries/air depolarised batteries.

In addition, producers of portable batteries must also comply with the set collection and recycling targets for 5 years. While there are no specified targets for the first 2 years (producers are only required to set up and pilot the collection of portable batteries), the targets for the third year to the fifth year are as follows:

  • Year 3 – 19,17 tonnes;
  • Year 4 – 38,34 tonnes; and
  • Year 5 – 76,68 tonnes.

3. E-waste management responsibilities lie both on the producers’ and consumers’ sides

E-waste is becoming a bigger concern in our daily life, and it is without a doubt that producers of electronic products play a significant role in tackling this issue. However, the responsibilities that end-users of electronic products must bear can’t be neglected either.

The government of the Dominican Republic is certainly not overlooking these responsibilities.

On 16 March 2023, the Draft Law regulating the management of electrical and electronic equipment waste in the Dominican Republic was proposed, which would establish waste-related requirements for producers, marketers, and users of EEE.

If adopted, the law would oblige companies placing EEE on the market to, among others, implement take-back and management systems for the waste of their products, inform the users of their products about the correct return and management of waste EEE, and provide information to end-users about the ban on disposing of waste EEE together with the household solid waste.

Marketers of EEE, who are companies in charge of the wholesale or retail distribution of EEE for commercial purposes, could be obliged to provide technical and logistical support to the producer in the collection and environmentally safe management of the residues of these products.

On the other hand, companies using EEE would be required, for the first time, to return the waste of these products to the specified sites, for instance. This aims to make end-users undertake their co-responsibility for the integrated management of waste EEE, and recognize and respect the right of all citizens to a healthy environment.

4. Leniency has been proposed for EEE producers in the EU

At the same time, in the EU, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive is currently being revised to strike out obligations applicable to EEE producers to finance the costs of collection and disposal of their products.

Although still under discussion, if adopted, the updated WEEE Directive would remove retroactive requirements applicable to producers of photovoltaic (PV) panels and certain other EEE in terms of producers’ responsibility to bear the costs of the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal of waste resulting from PV panels placed on the market between 13 August 2005 and 13 August 2012. This means PV panel producers would only have to fund such costs of their products placed on the market as of 13 August 2012, when the WEEE Directive entered into force.

A similar requirement would be lifted for producers of other EEE, which fell into the scope of the WEEE Directive (known as “open scope EEE”, such as household luminaires) that was placed on the market before 15 August 2018, when the WEEE Directive extended its scope of application to all EEE by introducing a more comprehensive list of WEEE categories.

How to play your part in the circular economy?

As the concept of the circular economy gains momentum, consumer-facing downstream businesses close to their customers are increasingly setting circularity goals to extend the lifecycle of products and materials as part of their sustainability initiatives. Yet certain chemicals can be an obstacle to circularity. Learn more about regulatory developments around what’s in your products (and their waste) on our Enhesa Product business unit, Chemical Watch.