Boris Johnson urged to prevent e-waste mountain in Brexit planning

Poorly-made and hard-to-recycle electronics could "flood" the UK market after Brexit, resulting in an e-waste mountain, unless ministers act now to protect standards. That is according to a new report from Green Alliance.

Globally, e-waste is the fastest-growing domestic waste stream

Globally, e-waste is the fastest-growing domestic waste stream

The think-tank’s policy insight paper on designing for a circular economy for electronics reveals that the UK generates the second-highest amount of e-waste per person annually, with only Norway faring worse.

This presents a problem for the low-carbon transition and for the economy, as well as a resource challenge, the document explains. It states that the CO2 emissions attributable to the manufacture and disposal of the UK’s e-waste totals 800,000 tonnes annually.

Green Alliance argues that the issue could be tackled with stricter standards on durability, repairability and upgradeability for manufacturers, and with measures to stimulate the recycling, repair and resale market.

While the UK Government has promised to “match or where economically practicable exceed the ambition of the EU’s Ecodesign standards”, Green Alliance argues that specific, legally-binding provisions remain thin on the ground. Ecodesign measures are estimated to have prevented eight million tonnes of CO2e emissions in the UK annually since they came into force. Savings are realised through energy-efficient products, resource-efficient designs and longer life-cycles.

The think-tank is warning that the UK will risk missing its climate targets and that British manufacturers and retailers could be undercut by “others that get away with importing and selling poorer quality products” unless it introduces more robust policies now.

Along with a formal, legally-binding commitment to ensure standards remain at EU level or are increased, the report urges Government Departments to provide adequate funding and staffing to the bodies responsible for enforcing regulations and to increase fines for non-compliant firms. Revenue from fines should be ring-fenced to fund further market surveillance and enforcement.

Also recommended are measures to ensure that manufacturers and retailers – particularly those with online marketplaces, like Amazon and eBay – are aware of their legal requirements. More than 10,000 brands are listed on Amazon in the UK and the company came under fire from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) during its recent inquiry into e-waste.

The report additionally highlights the appetite of the general public for addressing e-waste. In a 2018 survey in partnership with the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Products, Green Alliance found that two-thirds of adults in Britain are often frustrated by electronics that do not last as long as they expected. The survey also found that three-quarters of people believe the Government has a role to play in helping them reduce their e-waste.

A similar, separate survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2019 found that 96% of UK residents are 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.

“The last thing we want to see this Christmas is consumers being ripped off with shoddy products because the government is not doing enough to ensure better design and protect people,” Green Alliance’s head of resource policy Libby Peake said.
“Even before the pandemic, people were frustrated by products that didn’t last. At a time when many experiencing financial difficulties and are becoming more dependent on electronic devices to communicate with family and friends, this couldn’t be more urgent.”

State of policy play

The UK Government recently agreed to transpose parts of the EU’s Circular Economy Package in national law ahead of Brexit. 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.

Measures detailed in the UK’s own Resources and Waste Strategy are likely to be phased in gradually over the coming five years. Progress on consultations has been slowed by Covid-19. A consultation on the Strategy in early 2021 – formerly diarised for 2020 -  will be used to design changes to extended producer responsibility (EPR) regimes.

Green groups have been urging the government to accelerate action, in light of the UN’s finding that global e-waste reached record levels in 2019. Some 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste was generated in 2019 – a 21% increase from 2014. Less than one-fifth was documented as recycled or reused.


edie Explains: Electronics and the circular economy

Organisations looking to understand the benefits and opportunities of reusing and recycling used electronics can now access a free 'edie Explains' guide breaking down everything they need to know about preventing e-waste.

The nine-page edie Explains: Electronics and the Circular Economy business guide, produced in association with European Recycling Platform (ERP) UK, answers key questions for organisations exploring ways in which to ensure their used electronics and electricals are not landfilled, dumped or burned. It is free to download and can be accessed here


Sarah George



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