As of Friday, Germans could no longer just throw their old phones, computers or coffee makers in the trashcan out back. A new recycling system for electronics has been kicked off and manufacturers are getting the bill.
A jumble of electronic junk at a Berlin recycling center
You see them in or beside trash dumpsters or just sitting forlornly next to the curb: bulky beige computer monitors or dot-matrix printers, answering machines, refrigerators or that mobile phone that was the hippest must-have last year but is a unloved dinosaur now.
They are all part of Germany's growing pile of electronic waste, which, according to the country's environment ministry, amounts to about 1.8 million tons annually. The new recycling requirements that require consumers to take their waste electronics to collection centers or have them picked up, is aimed at getting the rushing river of burned out components, shot transformers and obsolete electronic gadgets under control.
"No type of trash has grown so rapidly recently as electronic waste, which has tripled in just a few years," said Eva Leonhardt, waste expert at the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe, which has set up a hotline to help people out with the new recycling rules. "Twenty years ago, the development cycle for electronics was around four years, now it's three months. That has led to an enormous increase in the amount of electronic trash."
Full of hazardous materials
While beige computer boxes and refrigerators left on city sidewalks are unsightly, they can also be dangerous. Circuit boards, batteries and CRTs can contain hazardous materials such as lead and mercury while Televisions usually also contain lead. Brominated flame retardants are commonly added to plastics used in electronics. All these toxins can be released into the environment through incinerator ash or leach into the soil at landfills.
"There are also recyclable waste in these products, like copper, aluminum, steel and sometimes even precious metals," said Leonhardt. "To not use these materials again is almost criminal."
Don't just toss it
On Friday, Germany's "Act Governing the Sale, Return and Environmentally Sound Disposal of Electrical and Electronic Equipment" went into force. The rules, better know as the Electronic Equipment Law, require manufacturers to cover the cost of collecting and recycling consumer electronics and appliances. They are designed to conform to an EU directive on electronic waste passed in 2004.
Consumers are now asked to take their old electronic equipment and appliances to central collection areas, where special containers have been set up to receive them. If consumers continue to throw their electronic waste in the normal trash, they can be fined.
After that, it's up to manufacturers to take care of things, since the law requires them to pick up the cost of recycling their products no longer in use. Companies who put any of 10 categories of electronic equipment on the German market have had to register with a central clearing house, called EAR, which coordinates the collection.
That does not mean that, for example, Siemens sends out collection trucks to pick up its own discarded mobile phones and other equipment in the 1,500 collection areas around the country. Rather, in a complicated process, EAR calculates the quantities of old electronics that each registered producer is required to collect from waste management authorities based on the amount the company puts on the market.
Dumpsters like this are off-limits for electronics
Companies can then contract with private recycling firms or other groups to disassemble the electronic waste, or do it themselves. They then must dispose of the toxic materials in environmentally sound ways, and can either re-use recyclable materials, or sell them abroad, as is often the case, since more and more electronics manufacturing is being done in Asia.
"No, you can't really say we were supporters of these regulations, since it is going to cost manufacturers between 300 and 500 million euros ($360 - $600) a year," said Otmar Frey of the German Electrical and Electronic Manufacturers' Association, even though his group decided to take a role in helping German lawmakers write up rules for implementing the EU directive.
"We decided it would be better not to wait until others came up with rules that we would have a hard time living with," he said. The association did not want a repeat of the fiasco that followed the introduction of a deposit system on beverage cans and bottles, which many experts say was poorly thought through.
In fact, according to Frey and others, the electronics recycling system, although operational for less than a week, is running smoothly so far.
Higher costs in the store?
While environmental groups are cheering the new rules, trade associations say consumers will likely pay a price, although they are not being directly charged for the new plan.
These could get more expensive because of the new rules
According to Germany's leading retail association HDE, producers will pass along the new recycling costs to consumers eventually. The disposal of a washing machine costs around eight euros ($9.60), a refrigerator 15 euros ($18), and a television set around 10 euros ($12). Those amounts could soon be incorporated into the price tag.
Slow going around Europe
The EU electronic waste directive was supposed to have been implemented by member states by August 2005, but most countries missed that deadline, including Germany.
While Austria did get a registration and collection system online on schedule, it had not yet figured out what do with the old electronics once they had been turned in. For months, collection centers were full of growing piles of plastic, glass and circuitry.
Holland, Belgium and Sweden have systems in place, as do the Swiss, although they are not part of the EU. Some countries are halfway there, such as Hungary, although others, such as France, Italy and the UK, have done little or nothing to turn the EU guidelines into national law. The UK does not anticipate having a national system in place until 2007.
"Several of these countries are facing proceedings because they are in breach of EU rules," said Frey.
Several of those countries with electronics recycling programs have organized them differently. While Germany separates its electronics according to functional category, Austria does it by size, and Hungary by tax number. That will make any kind of cross-border cooperation more difficult, especially for manufacturers active internationally, said waste expert Leonhardt.
"There will be a surprise waiting for electronics producers in every EU country," she said.