35.1 Under-estimating the importance of consumer behaviour – the UK WEEE obligations

Cerys Ponting , BRASS Research Centre, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
Hazel Ann Nash , BRASS Research Centre, Cardiff University, Cardiff, United Kingdom
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  • Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) was recognised as a priority waste stream by the European Community (EC). Consequently, Directive 2002/96/EC as amended by Directive 2003/109/EC on WEEE was adopted. As a member state of the EC, the UK is under a duty to comply with the requirements of a Directive (Article 249 Treaty of the EC). The first step to compliance is the transposition of the Directive's obligations into national legislation.

    This paper examines the transposition of the WEEE Directive into UK law. In particular, the paper focuses on the extent to which the UK Government considered the role and responsibilities of consumers in meeting the obligations contained in the WEEE regulations. Drawing on empirical research with key stakeholders, the findings observe a disincentive amongst organisations to undertake WEEE prevention activities due to absence of consumer demand.

    WEEE is growing at a rate of 3-5% per annum, approximately three times faster than other individual waste streams in the solid waste sector (Schwarzer et al., 2005). Rapid uptake of information technology, coupled with the advent of new design and technology in the electronic sector is causing the early obsolescence many electronic items used around the world today. For example the average lifespan of a new computer decreased from 4.5 years in 1992 to an estimated 2 years by 2005 and is further decreasing (Widmer et al., 2005). Studies have revealed that around 500m computers become obsolete in the USA alone between 1997 and 2006 (Yu et al., 2006). Similarly, over 130m mobile phones in the USA and over 105m mobile phones in Europe are discarded every year (Canning, 2006). In the UK, 6m electrical items are thrown away every year (Directgov, 2008).

    Cooper (1994) observes that industrialised societies have become more acquisitive, individualistic and profligate - impacting product life. Therefore, typical design intentions are to meet regulations whilst making attractive, affordable products that perform well enough and last long enough to meet market expectations (McDonough, W & Braungart, M., 2002: 37). This throw away behaviour challenges waste minimisation and the ultimate goal of zero waste, since effective waste reduction depends upon longer lasting products (UK Government, 1994: 150-151). A report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development underlines this: “From a technical point of view there is no question that longer-lived appliances could be made. This is freely agreed upon by manufacturers of these products” (OECD, 1982:15).

    This paper draws on the findings of multi-phase empirical research undertaken with key UK stakeholders in 2006 and 2008. The research examines the UK's transposition of the WEEE Directive, its implications on consumers and the effectiveness of these obligations in encouraging integrated and sustainable design and production of electrical and electronic equipment. Findings suggest that to a great extent consumers were excluded from the transposition process. This has led to criticisms from a variety of stakeholders that the WEEE regulations are not effective in altering consumer behaviour and thus do not assist in achieving sustainable consumption and production (SCP).

    The adopted methodology was a mixed methods approach, combining survey with qualitative semi-structured interviews.  It was also a two phase approach, with the first phase undertaken in 2006 and the second phase in 2008.

    The first phase consisted of a UK electronics industry survey, and was based on comprehensive desk research and prior research conducted by BRASS in the USA (Darby et al, 2004). The first phase survey found that just 20.2% of respondents considered that the WEEE obligations would be effective in preventing household electronic waste. Moreover, findings suggest that the transposition process was ineffective in raising consumer awareness of (i) EEE life cycle impacts & associated WEEE management issues, and (ii) the role of consumers in managing WEEE. In addition, semi-structured interviews were undertaken with UK Government Representatives, Trade Associations, Non-Governmental Organisations and selected industry representatives. From the interviews, there was concern among respondents about the role of the consumer in the WEEE process, and comments criticised the lack of awareness campaigns.

    The second phase comprised a follow-up survey in autumn 2008. This survey focused on gathering information on experiences of businesses subsequent to implementing WEEE in the UK. This data enables a ‘before and after' study. In this survey 60% either strongly disagreed or disagreed that UK WEEE regulations have been effective in raising consumer awareness of EEE life cycle impacts & associated WEEE management issues. Furthermore, a lack of consumer demand was considered to be a barrier in carrying out WEEE prevention and eco-design activities to over half the companies taking part in the survey.

    In conclusion, legislative and policy measures intending to promote SCP through both a life cycle approach and producer responsibility obligations are unlikely to alter patterns of design, unless consumer influence and behaviour is recognised as an inextricable and significant influence. In this way, successful implementation of the WEEE Directive is embedded within the wider sustainable consumption debate.

    The process of transposing the WEEE Directive into UK law provides useful lessons for the future. The lack of engagement with the public and the timing of publicity relating to WEEE requirements have undoubtedly inhibited public awareness of the obligations.  There is a need for educating the consumer in the adverse environmental impacts of WEEE. The role of consumers should not be regarded as a secondary issue but of paramount importance if wasteful consumption of natural resources is ever going to be prevented.

    Overall, it appears that there is some general hope that the WEEE obligations will, in the fullness of time, assist in changing consumption and waste disposal behaviours amongst the general UK population. This is only achievable through support and investment in consumer education and awareness that highlights the need to think carefully about environmental impacts of product purchase and product replacement. However, there is general pointing of fingers amongst stakeholders as to who is likely to be responsible and effective for such informational activities. Until this is resolved the WEEE obligations remain another retrospective waste management system.