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Keywords:

  • e-waste;
  • industrial ecology;
  • life-cycle assessment (LCA);
  • life-cycle costing (LCC);
  • product take-back;
  • waste electrical and electronics equipment (WEEE)

Summary

In February 2003, European Union (EU) policy makers implemented a Directive that will make producers responsible for waste electrical and electronic equipment at end-of-life (known as the “WEEE” Directive). Under this new legislation, producers are required to organize and finance the take-back, treatment, and recycling of WEEE and achieve mass-based recycling and recovery targets. This legislation is part of a growing trend of extended producer responsibility for waste, which has the potential to shift the world's economies toward more circular patterns of resource use and recycling. This study uses life-cycle assessment and costing to investigate the possible environmental effects of the WEEE Directive, based on an example of printer recycling in the United Kingdom.

For a total of four waste management scenarios and nine environmental impact categories investigated in this study, results varied, with no scenario emerging as best or worst overall compared to landfilling. The level of environmental impact depended on the type of material and waste management processes involved. Additionally, under the broad mass-based targets of the WEEE Directive, the pattern of relationships between recycling rates, environmental impacts, and treatment and recycling costs may lead to unplanned and unwanted results. Contrary to original EU assumptions, the use of mass-based targets may not ensure that producers adapt the design of their products as intended under producer responsibility.

It is concluded that the EU should revise the scope of consideration of the WEEE Directive to ensure its life-cycle impacts are addressed. In particular, specific environmental objectives and operating standards for treatment and recycling processes should be investigated as an alternative to mass-based recycling and recovery targets.