Obnoxious RoHS/WEEE rules and their German implementation

You might have heard about RoHS (Reduction of Hazardous Substances) before. I always thought it is a well-meant and important contribution of the European Union to reduce the amount of hazardous substances in electronic waste. As a supporter of many environmental groups, and an occasional voter for the Green party, I definitely support such a goal.

If I was to manufacture electronic equipment, then certainly I would consider it as my moral duty to pay for the cost of processing ('recycling', how they call it, if that was ever possible)the resulting waste. No debate on that at all.

Now I actually am involved with producing small quantities of electronic equipment, and suddenly those issues come up again. The product obviously only uses RoHS compliant components, no question on that. We do want to reduce the environmental impact, after all.

Now enter EU and German bureaucracy, combined with lobbying of large industrial electronics manufacturers, and you end up with the German implementation called "ElektroG" (Gesetz ueber das Inverkehrbringen, die Ruecknahme und die umweltfreundliche Entsorgung von Elektro- und Elektronikgeraeten [Law about distribution, withdrawal and eco-friendly disposal of electrical and electronic devices]). That law basically regulates and delegates the administration of the RoHS/WEEE guidelines to an authority called EAR (Stiftung Elektro-Altgeraete Register [Foundation for Registry of Electrical Devices]).

The way how this system works is:

  • All manufacturers and importers have to register themselves with EAR
  • They also have to register the quantity (weight) of produced/imported goods every month
  • They furthermore have to produce proof of having made a deposit on the amount of money required to "recycle" the resulting electronic waste, even in the case of bankruptcy of the producer/importer
This all sounds very reasonable and well-thought. Given the facts stated until here, I would still be an avid supporter of such a system.

Now enter the disaster: The minimum quantity that this system can deal with is the metric ton. This is very suitable for large manufacturers, but what about a small company that produces 100 units of 180grams of weight every year? It will take more than 55 years to fill up that metric ton. Now, if they actually allowed you to pay for one ton every 55 years, then that would be great. Obviously, they don't. Rather they employ an undisclosed lottery algorithm, which elects one registered producer/importer who has to take care of recycling one specific container that was filled last at the electronics waste collection station. Yes, every time one container is filled, they elect another lucky lottery winner. And in order to make sure that every possible "winner" could actually afford the disposal of that container, EAR has the "proof of bankruptcy-safe deposit".

You might think: Well, quite a fancy system, but assuming that algorithm was tuned right, there still is no problem, even for small producers, since the probability of them being chosen by the lottery is very low. And in fact it is. An EAR person has publicly stated in an interview that only producers having produced more than 3.5 metric tons of electronics are eligible to win that lottery. Great, since in our example that would be in 194 years. Son nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong. The administrative fees of EAR.

  • 155 EUR one-time fee for registration is still quite acceptable.
  • 85 EUR per product that is put on the market is fine, too.
  • 100 EUR for each notice of change in production quantity is a bit steep, given the inevitable flux of that figure.
  • 455 EUR for the validation of the proof of having made the deposit
  • 215 EUR annually for the re-validation of the proof of having made the deposit

Now what kind of bull**it is this? This means that during those 55 years we would fill one metric ton, we'd have to pay 12066 EUR only in administrative fees for validation and re-validation of the bankruptcy-save deposit? All that for the disposal of one ton of electronic waste, which costs [now] between 200 and 400EUR ?

I would be very surprised if such fees would not violate anti competition rules of the EU somewhere at some point. This is the creation of a serious market entrance barrier for small manufacturers of electronic equipment and nothing else.