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E-waste Regulation: The Global Leaders

Cell phones collected for recycling. Photo by Michael Schmelling from

E-waste Regulation: The Global Leaders

E-waste is building up worldwide, and the first area to establish comprehensive regulations to control it is the European Union.

The EU wasn’t the first to attempt to manage e-waste, though. In the 1970’s, Japan started recycling electronics, but it was so expensive to maintain they switched to crushing and burying appliances in landfills. When landfill space became hard to find, 20-40% of waste appliances may have been exported or dumped illegally. This prompted Japan to enforce the Home Electronic Recycling Act in 2001, which targeted washing machines, televisions, refrigerators and air conditioners. Those four items comprised 80% of the appliances produced in Japan, or 20 million appliances per year. And in 1998, Japanese manufacturers voluntarily removed lead from solder in electronics to promote sales through the marketing of eco-friendly products.1,2


European Union:  The E-waste Directives

In the first decade of the 21st century, the European Union developed and enforced the most comprehensive set of e-waste management laws known. It includes WEEE, RoHS, REACH and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, described here.


The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) was put into force in February 2003 and its legal requirements first impacted the EU in August 2005. WEEE places the responsibility for waste management on producers by requiring them to pay for its collection, treatment, and recycling or re-use. WEEE also requires producers to adopt new designs for waste re-use, recycling and reduction, and applies both to new products and to existing ones, further extending its impact.

WEEE specifies the minimum requirements for e-waste management in the EU, and Member States can extend their laws beyond its specifications.2,3

The EU WEEE Directive Logo.

   2.  RoHS

The Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) was implemented with WEEE in February 2003, and its requirements first impacted the EU in July 2006.

While WEEE focuses on waste management at the end of product life, RoHS manages waste at the start of product life by restricting the use of six highly toxic substances:  cadmium, hexavalent chromium, lead, mercury, polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). It prevents those substances from entering the lifecycle by controlling the original product design.

RoHS must be transposed into the laws of each EU Member State exactly as it is written.2,4


The Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemical Substances Regulation (REACH)  was implemented in June 2007. It requires all substances and their specific applications to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency, and then evaluated for health risks. If a substance poses significant risks, it may be added to the Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) list, which can result in its restriction to use only in certain authorized applications or its complete restriction or ban in the EU.

REACH is imposed directly on Member States and is not transposed into their individual laws.2,5

4. Packaging and Packaging Waste

The Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive was originally enforced in 1994 and was amended in 2004 and 2005. It increases the recovery and recycling of packaging waste throughout the EU, encourages the reuse of packaging, and limits the heavy metals used in packaging products.6

Packaging data collection by Member States is mandated and monitored by the EU for glass, plastics, paper, board, wood and metals.

The EU Ecolabel (

EU E-waste Directives: Implementation

About one-third of EU e-waste is reported as appropriately collected and treated. The other two-thirds may be going to landfills or substandard treatment sites, and some is exported, as the illegal trade of e-waste outside the EU is still found at EU borders.

Furthermore, the collection target of 4kg per person does not account for all of the waste generated by all Member States, and the amount of e-waste generated is believed to be growing three times faster than municipal solid waste.2

New laws addressing these issues are being implemented now. Their details and how they are being implemented will be described in our next blog in this series.


1Chung, Sung-Woo et al. 2008. “A Comparative Study of E-Waste Recycling Systems in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan from the EPR Perspective: Implications for Developing Countries.”

2Burtt, Nigel, Electronics Manufacturing Consultancy with a Pragmatic Green Perspective, personal communication, May 2012.

3European Commission, “Recast of the WEEE Directive.”

4European Commission, “Recast of the RoHS Directive.”

5European Commission, “Reach.”

6B2BWEEE Packaging Legislation.

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