Government 'must hold businesses like Apple and Amazon to account over e-waste'

Electronics brands and online retailers have been "dodging responsibility" for their e-waste impacts - and new laws could help stop them from producing tech that is hard to repair or recycle.

MPs are concerned that bricks-and-mortar retailers are held to different requirements than online marketplaces

MPs are concerned that bricks-and-mortar retailers are held to different requirements than online marketplaces

That is the damning conclusion of the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) inquiry into e-waste in the UK – launched in recognition of the fact that e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream.

A recent policy paper by Green Alliance revealed that the UK generates the second-highest amount of e-waste per person annually, with only Norway faring worse. The majority of this waste is not recorded as recycled, with e-waste pollution being a growing concern for some developing nations and regions.

To that end, the EAC’s inquiry quizzed businesses on their efforts to embed best-practice and prevent e-waste. MPs also spoke with trade bodies, NGOs and policy experts to get a snapshot of the problem and to develop solutions.

On the former piece, the EAC’s final report into the inquiry reveals that MPs were not satisfied with the answers that companies like Amazon and Apple provided about the longevity of their products and their measures on repair and recycling.

The report criticises Amazon for failing to collect and recycle electronics in the way that many bricks-and-mortar retailers, including Dixons Carphone, do. It also reveals that Apple has been glueing and soldering internal components in phones, tablets and laptops, making these items hard to repair unless they are taken to a specialist.

Amazon told edie that it is "committed" to minimising waste and offers both trade-in and recycling, as well as selling pre-owned goods. 

"We provide a range of options that anyone can easily access through the Amazon Second Chance website. We have supported the recycling of more than 10,000 tonnes of electronic waste in the UK over the last decade," a spokesperson said. The spokesperson emphasised Amazon's commitments on recycled content and carbon and added that the firm  "will continue to work constructively with Defra and others on the role of online marketplaces and the circular economy, and the challenges of electronic waste". 

Policy recommendations

While the UK Government has agreed to transpose parts of the EU’s Circular Economy Package in national law ahead of Brexit, the EAC’s conclusion is that more must be done to hold businesses to account and to educate and empower consumers.

The Package names the electronics sector as a “priority” for implementing a “right to repair” approach and floats an EU-wide take-back scheme for old phones, chargers, and tablets.

While welcoming this provision, the EAC would also like the government to introduce a legal requirement for all electronics retailers – both online and high street – to offer collection and recycling schemes that are accessible in-store and remotely. Such a measure should come into force in 2021, starting with large retailers.

The Committee is also recommending laws to ban companies from preventing the right to repair or for intentionally shortening the lifespan of their electronics and electricals. It has floated a requirement for producers to label items with their expected lifetimes and a ‘repairability score’.

More broadly, the Committee is calling on Defra to set long-term targets for the collection, reuse and recycling of electronics and electricals – as it is planning to do for things like biodiversity and air quality.

And, to prevent international e-waste crime, there is a recommendation for the Environment Agency to be supported to undertake stronger enforcement activity. The body has seen its funding cut by more than half since 2009, which is of concern to the EAC.

The recommendations come amid delays to the implementation of the UK’s Resources and Waste Strategy. A consultation on the Strategy in early 2021 – formerly diarised for 2020 -  will be used to design changes to extended producer responsibility (EPR) regimes.

“Too many devices have a limited, and sometimes decreasing, lifespan and end up in bins, eventually going to landfill or incineration,” EAC chair Philip Dunne MP said. “There is no chance of precious metals being retrieved, which could quickly become a huge problem as the rare and disappearing materials are crucial for renewable energy such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric car batteries.”

Welcome response 

Reacting to the EAC's recommendations, the Royal Society of Chemistry's policy and evidence manager Tanya Sheridan said she is "pleased".  

“As demand for tech devices rises across the globe, we face supply risks for many critical raw materials essential to most green technology for climate change mitigation, including solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles," Sheridan said. 

“While chemical researchers are exploring many different routes to ensure supply shortages of these materials can be avoided, if the UK is to achieve its ambitions to enable a green recovery and achieve a net-zero economy, it is essential the UK Governments support ways to replace, recycle and retain these materials within our economy.” 

A survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by the organisation in 2019 found that 96% were keeping more one or more small technology items, including laptops, mobile phones and MP3 players, stored at home. Of these people, less than one in five have plans to recycle these items, with two-thirds planning to hoard them “indefinitely”. 

The society warned that this was a missed opportunity for recycled materials and urged greater policy support around consumer awareness and corporate responsibility. 

Sarah George



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