Mention the words 'green' and 'environmentally friendly' to most channel business people and they will probably roll their eyes. Recycling IT equipment has historically been a costly and messy business that few resellers have ever felt inclined to get involved in.
But that will have to change soon, thanks to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which will become enshrined in UK law by August next year.
While on the surface this may seem like more red tape and an extra cost and resource burden, there is also a view that it represents an opportunity for resellers. It just depends how you look at the impending legislation, and whether you see it as a help or a hindrance.
Having a positive attitude towards the European Union's (EU's) directive can be the difference between making and losing money, so resellers should be prepared to see recycling policy as less 'hippy' and more 'City worker'.
"There are opportunities for a lot of people to make money out of these new regulations. Having said that, it's not yet clear exactly what they are," says Claire Snow, director of the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling.
"The confusion should come to an end in the next few months; it's always darkest before the storm."
This lack of clarity about how the UK will implement WEEE legislation is reflected by the lack of detail when you ask the big vendors - who will play a leading role in any recycling system - what they are doing.
Part of IBM's latest statement on the matter reads: "IBM is committed to environmental affairs leadership in all of its business activities.
"Because of our experience in addressing the end-of-life equipment disposal needs of our customers, IBM is well prepared to meet the requirements of the WEEE directive. In addition, IBM has formally launched an internal project to ensure effective and efficient implementation of WEEE directive obligations."
However, most of the big players, like IBM, have accepted the inevitable and agree with the thinking behind WEEE.
Mike Dinsdale, marketing director at Brother UK, says: "Legislation can be painful and it is often seen as interfering, but the fundamental basis for it we have to support. We have to stop putting more waste in landfill sites and pouring chemicals into the water table."
Brother has been an advocate of the WEEE directive, and recognises the role that its resellers have to play. "The time has come to stop whingeing and deal with it," he says. "You're not going to change it."
The vendor reports general apathy when it comes to the new regulations, which is not unsurprising given the fact that the directive has not been finalised.
There is also another point of view - one that the UK Independence Party would probably sympathise with: it's all just more European red tape. There appears to be a knee-jerk response to European legislation that promotes indifference.
After all, the Eurocrats were responsible for implementing standard banana sizes, so therefore anything coming out of the European Commission is just a waste of time, right?
It is a difficult image to shake off, but resellers can do so if they realise the directive provides an opportunity to educate customers while offering them services to dispose of old equipment.
Manufacturers and distributors are starting to realise this and formulate reseller plans. Brother's Insynergi TEC programme is aimed at resellers that want to get involved. It is a sort of 'go green' incentive scheme that offers bonus points, discounts and marketing support, in particular for its products that meet the TCO'99 environmental standard.
The firm also helps resellers understand the implications of WEEE and the potential for creating closer ties with customers.
So what will resellers have to do thanks to the WEEE directive? Much of the detail has yet to be finalised, but there are some fundamental functions that resellers will have to implement. While on the surface it may seem practical enough, there are some potential paperwork headaches looming.
First, resellers will have to register with the appointed authority, which means paying an annual registration fee that has been loosely estimated at about £800, although this has yet to be confirmed. They will also have to be part of a retail take-back scheme and report on sales figures.
Under the retail take-back scheme retailers will finance the return of WEEE through either a direct take-back service or maybe through a compliance scheme offering WEEE take-back services to customers on their behalf.
This service will be offered to consumers that make like-for-like purchases, where the equipment is of the same type or fulfils the same function as the product being returned.
End-users will also be able to return their electrical waste to local authority sites and retail parks, or through organised take-back events, where the reseller could also have a voluntary involvement.
If selling to businesses the set-up is basically the same, except for the retail take-back scheme. Instead, business-to-business resellers will have to take products back on a sell-one-take-one-back basis.
This is open to potential problems for resellers, because not all customers will want to replace so-called end-of-life computers, or they may want to buy from another reseller, or they may not want to return their old equipment at the same time as they upgrade.
So there are potential problems. Unfortunately it will not always run smoothly, which means resellers must have well-organised policies in place to cope.
At the moment, though, that is a little difficult to get your head around without a formalised final published copy of the WEEE directive in your hand. Resellers are better off tracking the idea of how to make money from services around the directive.
One way to do that is to see the recycling process as part of a much bigger end-of-life service for customers.
After all, the WEEE directive is part of a bigger trend towards helping customers adhere to the demands of 'corporate social responsibility'. This throws up other standards and regulations for other issues, such as packaging, and includes the Environmental Protection Regulations (Duty of Care) for data management.
Alex Tatham, vice-president of global software at Bell Microproducts, believes this in itself is a chance for resellers to differentiate themselves and make money. For Bell, it is not just about resellers managing recycling, it is about managing data and ensuring sensitive files are not left on end-of-life machines.
To help resellers, the distributor has come up with the idea of a dedicated packaged service that resellers can buy to ensure they are compliant, and sell on to their customers at a profit.
"The service we offer allows resellers to present themselves to customers with a guaranteed product at a fixed price," says Tatham. "We are offering auditing, data cleansing and disposal that can be rebranded by resellers and resold as their own."
It is an interesting concept for resellers, but it is still a little early, something that Tatham is very aware of. There is still a lot of education needed, both for resellers and end-users, and it is too soon to start talking about road shows.
However, it is a sign of intent from Bell that it wants to be seen to be active in helping resellers understand the environmental legislation and make money from servicing its requirements.
Tatham thinks this is a package that resellers can hold onto and be ready for when customers start demanding it, and he believes they will. "I don't think many will proactively push it, but customers will start to ask, and when they do, our resellers will have an answer," says Tatham.
"As a distributor, it's about adding value to the channel."
More distributors and vendors will inevitably follow as the legislation starts to bite, and with this kind of approach, it makes it all the more attractive to resellers.
There is also help at hand from other sources too. London-based redundant electronic equipment re-use and recycling firm Maxitech.Biz has developed a number of asset management solutions aimed at helping companies deal with waste IT equipment, and in some cases resell it.
In a pilot programme conducted over the past year, Maxitech.Biz found that a typical organisation can recover five per cent of the initial cost of redundant IT equipment while meeting the requirements of the WEEE directive. One firm in three can actually generate a positive return from their recycling programme.
Peter Paduh, managing director of Maxitech.Biz, estimates that there is about one million tonnes of redundant electronic equipment in the UK, of which 100,000 tonnes is roughly IT-related. He also estimates that about 10 per cent of this is currently recycled. The aim is to increase this figure dramatically to everyone's benefit.
"While companies are beginning to increase their IT spending there is a common but unfounded fear that the WEEE directive will eat into these budgets through administrative burdens and increased business costs of disposal of the old equipment," Paduh says.
"However, recovering about five per cent of the original value of old electronic kit, while still meeting the requirements of WEEE, is possible through the Wholesale Asset Maximisation programme we operate.
After a year of trials, the programme has proved that our clients can get back some of the costs of disposing of IT and electrical equipment, and in about a third of cases can provide additional returns."
Paduh is keen for resellers to get involved in his scheme, which is backed by recycling market development agency London Remade, and to make use of its asset management programme and recycling services. In particular for small businesses there is a reporting system where users can log on and download data and barcode equipment.
Maxitech.Biz is one of many potential specialist partners for resellers in this space, and resellers may feel they need all the help they can get, especially the smaller ones.
Dinsdale is aware smaller resellers may regard this as another burden, and given recent research by LexisNexis that shows SMEs in the IT and communications sector are losing 12 working weeks a year to red tape, you can see why.
While LexisNexis has its own Red Tape Buster solution for helping businesses cope with increasing legislation, there is a real concern about the indirect cost of legislation, and for that reason it is in everyone's interest to keep the cost of recycling as low as possible.
Dinsdale says the WEEE directive is "just the tip of the legislative iceberg", and there are more drafts in the pipeline. "What we are looking at here is a kind of WAT, Waste Added Tax, so it is important that we all work together to minimise the green bill," he says.
Part of this process is getting businesses to buy more TCO'99-accredited products that have been designed with end-of-life recycling in mind. This reduces the overheads for the producers and the recyclers, and somewhere along the line resellers will just have to hope that any cost reductions are passed on in decent discounts.
But it is also about confidence in the legislators. They have to get it right, but there are signs that problems could lie ahead. One of the key issues raised by the Department of Trade and Industry is the establishment in the UK of a National Clearing House (NCH) for WEEE. The idea has been met with mixed feelings.
Tom Wagland, environmental manager at Ricoh, believes that while there is a need for a national scheme that manages, polices and controls electronic waste disposal to ensure that all firms comply with the law, the proposal by the Strategic Electronic Waste Policy Forum for an NCH model may not offer the best solution.
"The issue of an NCH is still unclear," Wagland says. "At present, it is a working paper that offers a generalised solution to the problem of national electrical waste disposal. The disposal needs of industries vary, and although the NCH attempts to address the waste problems of many industries, it is too general.
"The disposal needs of an electric toothbrush manufacturer, for example, are very different from those of a printer manufacturer. It would be difficult to subject them to the same controls, especially where existing procedures are in place and already addressing the needs of the WEEE legislation.
"Different products have varying quantities of materials that can be recycled. Therefore it is difficult for all industries to comply to the same set of instructions. The issue cannot simply be addressed by a one-size-fits-all approach."
Wagland's views are not unique, but it is a sign that the WEEE directive still has a way to go. However, time is running out, and whether or not it pleases everyone in the industry is a matter of concern.
For resellers, though, there is sure to be bags of help, not least because it is in vendors' interests to ensure smooth asset management for end-of-life equipment. Going green can now be a business choice as well as one of conscience for resellers.
Bell Microproducts (020) 8286 5999
Brother (0161) 330 6531
DTI (020) 7215 5000
LexisNexis (020) 8662 2000
London Remade (020) 7665 1536
Maxitech (0870) 199 5010
Realise IT Network (020) 7926 6217
Ricoh (020) 8261 4000
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