Progress on implementing the WEEE Directive has been dogged by the difficulty in drawing up workable plans for a national clearing house to oversee the physical collection of WEEE.
The concept of a clearing house was developed two years ago by four manufacturers - Hewlett Packard, Electrolux, Gillette and Sony - as an alternative to a system based on buying tradable certificates from recyclers, as with packaging, and a system, such as the Dutch model, based on a single compliance scheme with a mandatory visible fee to pay for the recycling of "orphan" products.
The idea was that a council would call the clearing house when the skips at its civic amenity (CA) site were full and ask for them to be collected. The clearing house would then tell a compliance scheme to take responsibility for the consignment as part of its obligation and arrange for it to be taken to a recycler.
Eager to develop a solution that had the approval of electronics manufacturers, the Department of Trade and Industry's first consultation paper in November 2003 accepted the idea - but the paper failed to explain how the clearing house would allocate collections fairly, and how such a system would fit with existing long-term contracts between councils and waste management companies for running CA sites.
By early 2004 the DTI was suggesting that the system could operate under a set of regional or nationwide logistics contracts, which would be awarded by compliance schemes or individually registered producers.
The issue had still not been resolved when the DTI issued draft regulations in July 2004. The favoured option was for the clearing house to allocate WEEE arisings to compliance schemes or producers as a series of pick-ups from a site, rather than allocate specific sites or specific loads.
However, ENDS understands that Mr O'Brien has rejected this system as too bureaucratic and instead wants CA sites, and any other "designated collection facilities" (DCFs) that emerge, to be allocated to individual compliance schemes.
Each DCF would have to tell the clearing house how much WEEE it expects to collect each quarter. If a scheme ends up with more WEEE than it needs to cover its members' recycling obligations, it would be free to sell that surplus - in the form of some kind of tradable certificate - to a scheme that had fallen short.
Producers that chose to comply individually rather than join a compliance scheme would not be allocated their own DCF, and instead would have to meet their recycling obligations through the purchase of such certificates.
The allocation of sites, rather than batches of pick-ups, to compliance schemes, will please local authorities because they would prefer to deal with a single contractor.
The DTI appears to be aiming to lay the regulations before Parliament before the summer recess, so that there is enough time for most producers to register with the Agency or a compliance scheme by the end of the year. The regime would start on 1 January 2006.
Speaking at a recent conference on the Directive, the DTI's Andrew Lunnon said officials "were going to Ministers very soon for a decision on the timetable for implementation", and would inform Ministers of Germany's decision not to bring the Directive into force until early next year.
The DTI is under pressure to avoid infraction proceedings from the European Commission for failing to implement the Directive on time. The Directive was supposed to have been implemented by August 2004, while networks of recycling facilities are supposed to be in place by August 2005.
The Agency, meanwhile, is finding it hard to assess its future enforcement activities until the regulations make clear the clearing house's responsibilities, the penalties for obligated businesses, and the level of producer registration fees (ENDS Report 358, pp 53-54 ).
The Agency's Jeff Cooper told the same conference that the imminent consultation paper on permitting of WEEE treatment facilities would include proposals for new exemptions.