The fate of worn-out electrical equipment may not seem a top priority but new environmental regulations may have caught managers in the health service napping, says Paul James

Many trusts looking to dispose of redundant IT equipment or electrical medical equipment could soon be faced with unforeseen costs. European legislation is now controlling the disposal and recycling of electrical equipment and one directive in particular will affect public and private sectors alike.

While the implications of the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive are clear enough for high street retailers and manufacturers selling goods to consumers, the practical realities of the regulations for business end-users - and that includes the health sector - are more complicated.

However, the really worrying fact is that so few managers in the health service seem to have heard of the directive, despite the fact it was fully effective from 1 July, with even fewer having a clear idea of what to do about their obligation.

After much discussion, and some procrastination surrounding its implementation, the directive is now law in the UK. While the new regulations are expected to affect 100,000 manufacturers and retailers, the regulations have implications for all public-sector organisations.

Much discussion has centred on the obligations businesses have regarding household waste, but advice and guidance has been less forthcoming when it comes to business equipment, such as that found in hospitals, dental surgeries and GP units. Who pays for the collection, treatment and recycling of old equipment? Who needs to record the tonnage of waste and submit information to the regulatory agency? Who is responsible for meeting recycling targets on redundant electrical equipment and what are the penalties for non-compliance?

Finding the answers

These questions do not have easy answers. They also have huge implications for health organisations that are looking to upgrade, replace or discard equipment. This issue has obvious implications for any health practitioner replacing anything from complex medical equipment to everyday IT equipment.

The legislation requires producers who supply new equipment to health authorities to take back old products, even if they were not the original suppliers. However, when the end-user is discarding old products and not buying replacements, or where contractual arrangements with the producer of new equipment are not in place, the obligation to dispose of the waste in an environmentally responsible manner will sit with the end-user.

Crucially, one of the main differences between equipment that was sold to consumers and that sold to organisations such as primary care trusts lies in the levels of producer responsibility to manage old equipment. While producers of business-to-consumer waste have a clear obligation to manage the collection, treatment and recycling of redundant products, business-to-business producers can pass on their legal responsibilities to the end customer through contractual agreement. It could turn out that medical equipment manufacturers pass back the responsibility of environmental disposal to the PCT or health provider.

To make matters more complicated, certain electronic and electrical equipment, such as fridges and PC monitors, are classed as hazardous. This raises the possibility of health sector managers being unwittingly liable to dispose of hazardous equipment, which may in turn require them to register as hazardous-waste producers with the appropriate regulatory agency, as well as pick up the bill for its safe disposal.

To avoid picking up an obligation on old electrical equipment or, where this is unavoidable, paying over the odds for its collection, treatment, recycling and reporting, health organisations need to be considering now how they deal with the implications of the regulations.

While the greater use of sophisticated monitoring and diagnostic equipment has no doubt had a huge impact on the levels of patient care, the safe disposal of such items could prove costly if not managed properly.

Paul James is head of waste electrical and electronic equipment services at DHL.For more information click here