Two strangely titled and little known Directives are slowly but surely causing something of a stir in the IT and electronics world.

The "Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment" (WEEE) Directive1, and its sister, the "Restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment" (RoHS) Directive2 have compliance implications for organisations up and down the manufacturer to customer foodchain.

The DTI, in one of their many recent briefings on the subject3, address their advice to Managing Directors and Chief Executives of all UK electrical and electronics companies. In an introductory message from Stephen Timms, the Minister of State for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services, organisations are "strongly urged…to read and act [on the issues]" and states that "those companies who start to plan now can minimise additional costs and gain market advantage through demonstrating to their supplier, and customer base that they are WEEE/RoHS compliant".

But how much of an issue really is it? Companies jumped at the threat of the Y2K timebomb, and whilst some problems did occur (and many organisations were able to rationalise their offerings on the back of the issue), the millennium bug certainly meant increased expenditure for many organisations. Similarly, with so much new regulation in recent years (Distance Selling, E-Commerce, Freedom of Information, RIPA, the new Comms Act etc) and the threat of other compliance issues for some, e.g. through Basel II, one could be forgiven for remaining sceptical as to the application of these Directives and the consequences of non-compliance.

The DTI certainly believe this to be a substantial issue. The same briefing estimates the total costs to the UK economy are:-

WEE £217 - £455 million per annum to comply with the Directive
RoHS£120 million per annum annualised over 10 years for capital costs and R&D
RoHS £55 - £96 million per annum in increased operating costs of using alternative substances post 2006

So why should we care?

1. The WEEE Directive at a glance

The WEEE Directive will not become law until 13 August 2004. It encourages and sets criteria for the collection, treatment, recycling and recovery of "EEE" (electrical and electronic equipment). It makes producers responsible for financing most of these activities, for example, producers must set up systems for the treatment of WEEE and also provide for recovery from householders. The WEEE Directive does not contain any mandatory requirements for householders to separate all EEE but Member States must seek to minimise co-disposal and encourage appropriate behaviour.

As such, a producer of IT equipment may have potential liability under this Directive or find that the disposal and recycling obligations introduce new costs.

2. The RoHS Directive at a glance

The RoHS Directive (otherwise referred to as the "lead-free" legislation) is to be transposed in the UK by 13 August 2004. The aim of the RoHS Directive is to restrict the use of certain substances used within the manufacture of electrical and electronic equipment that are put on the market after the 1 July 2006, in order to protect human health and the environment. It complements the WEEE Directive and even draws its lists of affected items from the appendices to the WEEE Directive.

The RoHS Directive applies to any producer within the EU and to producers of EEE that are outside Europe if the equipment they produce is ultimately imported into a EU Member State. A producer is defined widely to include anyone who manufactures, sells, resells, imports or exports EEE, irrespective of method of selling technique4.

The RoHS Directive restricts a total of six substances - lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, PBB and PBDE. These substances are amazingly prevalent in our everyday lives and are likely to pop up in your fridge, microwave, aircon, toaster, PC, printer, telephone, TV, radio, lights, in a variety of hospital equipment, thermostat and even your train set.

Below is a table showing what the maximum permitted concentrations are:

SubstanceProposed Maximum Concentration
Lead - Pb 0.1 %
Mercury - Hg 0.1 %
Cadmium - Cd 0.1 %
Hexavalent Chromium Cr (VI) 0.1 %
Polybrominated biphenyls – PBB 0.1 %
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers - PBDE 0.1 %

What's really behind all this?

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, the UK Government committed themselves to;

"encourage and promote the development of a ten year framework of programmes accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production".

This initiative, now encapsulated in the DTI paper entitled Changing Patterns: UK Government Framework for Sustainable Consumption and Production, was led by Tony Blair who stated;

"I want Britain to be a leading player in this coming green industrial revolution"

What's the timetable? 5

13 February 2003Directives published
31 March 2003 First UK discussion paper issued
30 May 2003Closing date for replies to the above
1 August 2003Summary of all responses and initial Government views published
Early December 2003Next detailed consultation paper planned
1 March 2004Deadline for responses to 2nd consultation
Late Spring 2004Final consultation on draft regulations and non-statutory guidance
Summer 2004Regulations laid
Summer 2004Producers to commence registration
13 August 2005Producer responsibility for financing commences alongside retailer take-back
1 July 2006RoHS substance ban commences
31 December 2006Collection and recycling targets to be achieved

What if I don't comply?

As well as the adverse PR affect and the additional costs that your organisation might face in meeting recycling and environmental compliance requirements, the Directives have teeth. It is up to individual Member States to determine penalties applicable to breaches of the national provisions adopted pursuant to this Directive6. Any penalties thus provided for will have to be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.

The DTI discussion paper7 advises:

"The UK proposes to introduce the standard penalties for persons found to be in breach of the subsequent Regulations. On summary conviction, these are a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months and/or a fine of up to £5000. Where the offence is tried on indictment the maximum penalties are a term of imprisonment for two years and the fine is unlimited."

It goes on to suggest;

"To establish compliance with the Directive, formal testing procedures will need to be established for each of the banned substances. Local authority trading standards officers are likely to be the enforcement agency for the purposes of the RoHS Directive."

There is currently little information available that suggests how the legislation might be enforced and precisely what testing procedures will be employed, though it is likely a high degree of 'self-certification' will be employed.

What is the rest of the world doing?


As the world's number one developer and manufacturer of electronic components and PCBs, the entire electronics assembly industry has begun to pursue aggressively the removal of lead from the manufacturing process. This was started back in 1998 when the Japanese government increased levies for recycling leaded equipment. The target the Japanese government has put in place is a removal of over 90% of lead by the end of 2003. This does not cover offshore manufacturing, affecting only domestic production. The Japanese Electronic Industry & Technology Association (JEITA) is already working hard on developing manufacturing processes which eradicate lead from production and are well down the line investigating tin/bismuth/zinc (Sn/Bi/Zn) alloy solders.

Europe and USA

With the implementation of the RoHS and WEEE Directives at Member State level, it is estimated that Europe is around a year behind Japan's aggressive environmental manufacturing laws, while the USA is a further couple of years behind. Note that the European Commission will be reviewing the terms of the RoHS Directive to take into account any new scientific evidence before 13 February 2005.

What should I do?

At the very least, potentially affected organisations should:-

  • Get familiar with the legislation. There are, for example, some subtle drafting nuances of the Directives such that under the RoHS Directive (for example) some organisations and products will be exempt. Additionally, there is a restricted ability to utilize existing stocks of spare parts.
  • Undertake a technical audit to determine which products and/or systems are likely to be affected by these Directives. Consider whether the products concerned relate to a particular end-of-life cycle, such as upgrading, repair or refurbishment.
  • Undertake a contractual audit on those areas that have been identified as being problematic under the technical audit, i.e. examination of the agreements relating to those systems which could be affected. The basis for examining the agreements is to see who needs to sort the problem out and who should pay, the customer or the contractor (i.e. which organisation in the foodchain). From the customer's point of view the clauses of existing agreements must be examined in order to discover what strength of position the customer has to force the contractor to sort out the issue and so on up to the ultimate manufacturer.
  • As the DTI advise, consider the marketing benefits - consultation with customers could lead to improved products and new supply chain opportunities8.


1 Directive No. 2002/96/EC

2 Directive No. 2002/95/EC

3 "Actions you need to take" published jointly by the DTI and DEFRA, October 2003

4 Article 3 of the RoHS Directive


6 Article 8 RoHS Directive

7 28 March 2003 for the implementation of the directives (WEEE and RoHS),

8 "A guide to the maketing, produce development and manufacturing actions you need to take" published jointly by the DTI and DEFRA, October


Important - The information in this article is provided subject to the disclaimer. The law may have changed since first publication and the reader is cautioned accordingly.