Recycling should not baffle the innovation industry

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For an industry that prides itself on its dynamism, the IT hardware sector sometimes moves achingly slowly.

Take the implementation of the European Union’s directive on recycling computer parts.

Talked about since the late 1990s, the legislation was passed by the European parliament in 2002 and was expected to be implemented by member states two years later.

Even then a year’s grace was allowed before companies were finally expected to comply with its provisions.

So we were expecting this summer to see companies get to grips with the directive, which would force them to do nothing more frightening than start recycling their equipment. It didn’t happen.

The rules were widely denounced as unworkable by manufacturers, retailers and industry bodies. The deadline has now been postponed to early 2006 in many countries.

Who knows whether the manufacturers may win another stay of execution even after that or whether they will be fully prepared when the directive finally does make it into the real world?

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and its implementation are complex, it is true. But it is hard to see why the long awaited – and long debated – regulation has caused so much consternation to companies that like to be seen as fast moving, cutting edge and environmentally aware.

What the directive requires is that all electrical and electronic goods – from refrigerators to computers to hairdryers to mobile phones – are collected and as much as possible of them recycled, rather than simply dumped in landfill sites.

It is part of the EU’s drive to reduce the amount of rubbish sent to landfill, which is unsustainable at current levels.

Computer makers, distributors and users are united – at least in public – in their support for the principle of recycling old computer components. The problem, as usual, is in the detail.

Who should pay for the recycling and how should it be organised?

Most member states aim to place the burden for recycling firmly on the manufacturers, and away from consumers – a concept known as producer responsibility.

Business users are likely to find themselves somewhere in between, sharing some of the burden for recycling with their suppliers.

Businesses attempting to circumvent the rules and dispose of their old computer equipment in landfill or illegal dumps will find themselves in breach of the regulations and liable to fines. To be fair to manufacturers, it would be impossible, in practical terms, to track each individual item, and find a way for consumers to return it to the original manufacturer for recycling.

Therefore it makes sense for the waste to be aggregated in some way.

That is where the difficulty lies, as hardware makers have been reluctant to take on the recycling of another company’s goods.

There has been much debate about the status of “orphan” equipment – hardware from companies that have gone out of business or cannot be traced.

Battles have raged over whether retailers or manufacturers should be responsible for collecting the goods. There have been squeals of indignation from manufacturers at the thought that they might have to sully their hands by dealing with the detritus of other companies’ wares.

Dark mutterings have suggested that certain people might not be pulling their weight.

All of this has been tremendously overblown. There will be a cost attached to recycling on this scale, yes. That is hard on manufacturers that have seen their margins collapse in the past decade.

But all computer companies are in the same boat. And, although the burden of arranging the recycling will fall on the manufacturers and retailers, the cost will be passed on to consumers.

Computer hardware companies must understand that they are living with a new reality, where companies are increasingly being obliged to bear the costs of the environmental damage they inflict.

All companies are finding the same, whether it is the small business forced to pay more for its waste disposal because of rising landfill costs, or organisations in one of the sectors covered by the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions trading scheme.

Surely, it cannot be beyond the ability of savvy, sophisticated computer makers and sellers to organise a way of dealing with their waste.

It is in everyone’s interest that the rules are made to work properly.

If piles of computers and printers start to build up on street corners and waste ground – as has been happening in some areas with white goods such as refrigerators, because people and businesses are unable to find ways to dispose of them correctly – then everyone in the computer hardware industry suffers.

Everyone in the industry will be held to account – by governments, by the EU, and by consumers themselves.

Fiona Harvey is the FT’s Environment Correspondent

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