Computers, MP3 players, cell phones, TVs, blackberries, video games: they all end up as waste, sooner or later.  The issue of how they end their life (end-of-life or EOL) is the subject of the field of waste from electronic and electrical equipment (EEE), abbreviated as WEEE). [1] While WEEE represents only 2 – 4% of all municipal solid waste (MSW), the volume of such waste is growing very fast with all the new electronic devices available to a wider and wider consumer public.[2]  In 1998, an Italian agency estimated that there would be a 3 to 5% annual growth in WEEE in the EU.[3]  In NI, about 30,000 tonnes of WEEE are thrown way each year.[4]  Not only is the volume on the rise, some of the components of the EEE are particularly harmful to the environment and dangerous to people.
Commercial  WEEE includes printed circuit boards, cathode ray tubes, wires and cables, mercury switches, batteries, light generators,  capacitors and resistors, and sensors and connectors; domestic WEEE includes some of these items as well as computers and related devices (printers, scanners, copiers), TVs, cell phones, MP3 players, and new products regularly introduced on the market.  Some of this waste stream contains hazardous materials, including heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium, chromium, and arsenic, as well as other persistent and dangerous chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  Rather than dispose of this material in landfills, the effort now is to recycle as much as possible.
There are two EU Directives on WEEE.  One promotes the collection and recycling  of WEEE,[5] while the other restricts the use of hazardous substances in EEE.[6]   The Directives implement the principle of “extended producer responsibility.”  Under this principle — a derivative of the polluter pays principle — producers are required to take responsibility for the environmental impact of their products, especially when they become waste.   The Directives were transposed into RoI, UK, and Northern Ireland law.[7]
Generally, Directive No. 96 imposes obligations on companies that produce or manufacture EEE and companies that distribute EEE, i.e. retailers , to establish and pay for collection schemes where consumers can return used EEE free of charge.  Each producer and retailer can set up its own scheme, but most use a separate company that acts on behalf of the producers and retailers to collect and recycle or dispose of the WEEE. [8]  Even “distance sellers,”  that sell to consumers in RoI and NI on the internet, for instance, have obligations under the Directive for managing WEEE.
The legal scheme for dealing with the environmental problems created by disposing of WEEE is complicated.  First, there are the two EU Directives, and amendments, that set the basic terms of how the waste is to be treated, and who is responsible for what.  Then the Member States, here the RoI and the UK, passed laws transposing, or bringing into force, the EU law into national RoI and UK law.   Already existing laws, such as the RoI Waste Management law, had to be modified to accommodate  this new form of waste control.  Then the NI DOE had to adopt the UK regulations into NI law.  Then the RoI and the NI environmental departments or agencies had to get together and figure out how to deal with the responsibilities of businesses that sell EEE to customers in one jurisdiction who take and use the equipment in another jurisdiction.[9]
Some companies describe their services as recycling EEE but in fact they simply sell the used EEE to developing countries that extract any materials of value and dump the rest, including many of the dangerous substances, across the countryside, putting people at risk.[10] 

Under the WEEE  Directive, the RoI and Greece were granted the right to seek extensions of certain deadlines.  Despite the RoI’s past history of non-compliance with a number of environmental obligations over the years, it has been a leader in implementing the WEEE Directive.[11]

Some further ideas to explore on eWaste:

How many devices/appliances do you own that will end up as WEEE?  Identify each.

Count how many devices others in your group (household, class, club, church, pub) own and then calculate the amount of WEEE that will be generated collectively by your group within one year, and five years.

Identify the chemicals and metals in the WEEE generated by your group, and assess the environmental and health risks from this WEEE to your area and to your family and friends.

Where does your own or your group’s WEEE end up.  Trace the path of your or your group’s devices after they are turned in for recycling or disposal. Is this even possible?  See the article by EEA in footnote 10.

Organize a special community collection program for WEEE in your area, working with local authorities and private recycling companies.


See resources cited in footnotes above, and:  This RoI EPA site contains a full coverage of the issue with a number of helpful links, including the complicated regulations governing  WEEE.

recycling/waste_from_electric_and_electronic_equipment?#startcontent. [Glossary]

[1] EEE is technically defined in Article 3 of Directive 2002/96/EC (27th January2003) to exclude larger commercial, industrial equipment and categories of EEE are set forth in Annexes to the Directive.

[2] Irish Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Technology Centre, “Waste from Electrical & Electronic Equipment,” Report [ISBN No.:1-84095-066-8] (May 2001); US Environmental Protection Agency, “Electronic Waste Management in the United States,”  (6 August 2008).

[3] Irish Environmental Protection Agency and Clean Technology Centre, “Waste from Electrical & Electronic Equipment,” Report [ISBN No.:1-84095-066-8] (May 2001), at page 5.


[5]  Directive 2002/96/EC (27th January2003, as amended by Directive 2003/108/EC (8th December 2003).

[6]  Directive 2002/95/EC (27th January 2003).

[7] The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations (UK) (2006 No. 3289); Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (Waste Management Licensing) Regulations (Northern Ireland) (2006 No. 519); Waste Management (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Regulations, 2005 (S.I. No. 340 of 2005).[8]  In the RoI, two companies exist for this purpose:  WEEE Ireland,, and European Recycling Platform (ERP), Each website provides a full discussion of the obligations of producers and distributors/retailers under the schemes.  In the UK/NI Valpak operates a distributor take-back scheme:

[9] Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, “Protocol: North/South retail Activity in resp[ect of Electrical and Eloectronic Equipment,” 1 July 2007

[10]  Ben Elgin and Brian Grow“E-Waste: The Dirty Secret of Recycling Electronics,” Business Week, 15 October 2008; EEA, “Not in my back yard – international shipments of waste and the environment.”   23 Feb 2009

[11]  The Producer Responsibility Principle of the WEEE Directive: Final Report (August 19, 2007), EU DG ENV Study Contract No. 07010401/2006/449269/MAR/G4

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