Bricks-and-mortar retailers and online shops in Germany will soon be required to take back old electric appliances for free.
“The new regulations are expected to go into effect in October,” a spokesman at the environment ministry told Handelsblatt.
In early July, the German parliament, the Bundestag, decided to turn store operators and online retailers into official collection points for worn-out electric appliances. The Bundesrat, the upper house of German parliament that represents the German states, also agreed to a reform of the country’s Electrical Devices Act, the ElektroG.
The law applies to retailers with more than 400 square meters, or 4,305 square feet, of retail space. Online retailers with more than 400 square meters of warehouse space, such as Amazon, Notebooksbilliger.de and Redcoon, will also be required to take back used devices free of charge.
“At this point, we see no opportunity to offset the resulting economic burdens with the revenues from recycling raw materials.”
The new law makes an exception for bigger items. Retailers are only required to accept large appliances such as old refrigerators and flat-screen TVs if the customer buys an “appliance of the same value.”
But they must collect all small items, such as hairdryers, mobile phones and shavers, even if the customer doesn’t buy anything new. The law defines small appliances as items with no single edge longer than 25 centimeters, or 10 inches.
It’s still too early to tell how retailers will react to the new law, because they had not expected it to be enacted until the end of the year.
An Amazon spokeswoman said the company is working on a solution, adding that Germany’s largest online shipper might bring in outside companies to handle the task. A spokesman at rival online retailer Otto said the company was “not yet prepared to comment on specific procedures at this point.”
Volker Müller, the chief executive of Expert, a consumer electronics retail chain, is worried about the bottom line. “At this point, we see no opportunity to offset the resulting economic burdens with the revenues from recycling raw materials,” he said.
Electronic Partner, known better as EP, hopes that municipalities will be willing to participate in the program.
“We are recommending our independent EP retailers to work together with local recycling centers, which also accept old appliances from businesses free of charge,” the chief executive, Friedrich Sobol, told Handelsblatt.
Under the law, retailers are required not only to collect and separate different types of recyclable materials, but also to carefully document recycling.
Computers and mobile phones are filled with precious materials, said Germany’s environment minister, Barbara Hendricks, who is a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party, the junior party in Germany’s ruling coalition. “We want to reuse these materials in devices at the end of their serviceable life, and are now creating a tighter return network with many electronics dealers,” she said.
In reality, though, her plan is a desperate measure. Three years ago, Brussels decided more than 65 percent of electrical appliances sold must be recycled by 2019. Germany currently recycles only 45 percent, and collection is usually organized through builders’s outlets and other local collection points.
Experts point to problems with the current system. Because municipalities are allowed to sort out valuable waste materials first, the worthless remainder – mostly refrigerators, which are difficult to dispose of – are left to the Old Electrical Equipment Register, or EAR, a manufacturers’ waste disposal collective.
“That’s why EAR is increasingly running into financial trouble,” said Patrick Wiedemann, head of RLG, a company specializing in reverse logistics.
When the first German law regulating returns of old equipment was enacted 10 years ago, Mr. Wiedemann handled disposal for many electrical equipment makers. “But since the municipalities have become involved, we have lost 80 percent of the business,” he said.
Mr. Wiedemann said he hopes an amendment to the Waste Disposal Law, which goes into effect this fall too, provides his company with new business.
That could be the case, as most retailers will likely be overwhelmed by the collection of old appliances. The registration and documentation of returned equipment alone is a considerable task.
“The law is completely useless in practice and will create problems that can't be solved at this point.”
Retailers are also required to store electronic waste in seven separate containers, ready for removal. Worn-out refrigerators and other large household appliances can’t be mixed with mobile phones, lamps and small electrical devices. Two new product groups have also been added to the list: printer cartridges and solar panels.
The new law is likely to cause the biggest challenge for online retailers. They will be required to accept small electric devices – at their expense and without the ability to require the purchase of new goods.
The law also impacts shipping firms such as DHL and Hermes. “Old electric appliances are classified as hazardous waste,” Wiedemann noted. “This means that package delivery vehicles will have to be identified with a white warning sign with the letter A on it.”
Not surprisingly, online retailers have sharply criticized the new rule. “The law is completely useless in practice,” said Christoph Wenk-Fischer, managing director of the Federal Association of E-Commerce and Mail-Order Shipping, or BEVH, and will create “problems that can’t be solved at this point” for the industry. He is oppossed to what he views as a move to turn retailers into waste collectors.