WEEE: Tackling the next big business challenge

The recast Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive has now been in place in the UK for 18 months. The UK Government believes that the new system has produced an estimated £18m cost reduction for producers. Here, Scott Butler from the European Recycling Platform (ERP) explains why there is much work still to do.

In June, we sat down with a number of representatives from government and electronics producers (including Samsung, Sony Computer Entertainment, Hewlett-Packard and Amazon) to assess whether, over a year since implementation, the recast WEEE Directive is now up and running and can be forgotten about.

The consensus was clear from producers and government, the recast WEEE Directive and related UK government work has been a hugely positive driver for change in the UK, but there is still a great deal to be done.

WEEE – such as computers, TVs, fridges and mobile phones – is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the EU, with some nine million tonnes generated since 2005, and is expected to grow to more than 12 million tonnes by 2020.

Melanie Foster, assistant director of the environmental regulations team at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), outlined the drivers for changes that have already been introduced; the need to implement the EU recast and to reduce costs associated with legislation, as part of the government’s Red Tape Challenge. Foster also highlighted the achievements: over 490,000 tonnes of electronic waste collected in 2014 – exceeding the EU and the higher UK targets – and an estimated £18m in savings for electronics producers.

Kevin Considine, sustainability affairs manager at Samsung Electronics, commended BIS’s work, stating that the UK had lagged behind the rest of Europe. During 2011, for example, the UK WEEE system was almost seven times more expensive than Germany, with similar volume put on the market. However, industry has now seen significant improvements and the true costs of recycling are finally being reflected – not the previously inflated costs of compliance.

Challenges ahead

Further challenges are coming in 2019, when there will be a change from 10 categories of WEEE to just six. In the UK, there are already currently 14 categories, so a decision needs to be made as to whether the legislation or the reporting process is amended. There are also questions around whether the new target in 2019 should be 65% of sales or 85% of WEEE generated. The European Commission is examining the methodology for calculating either set of targets and Melanie said that BIS will continue to seek views from stakeholders.

In another development, the WEEE Directive will move to open scope in 2019. Products already in the scope of the directive remain the same, but a wider range of electrical and electronic equipment will be included. 

Targets are a weighty matter

The panel regarded the issue of WEEE targets as crucial not only to the success of the WEEE system, but to the wider circular economy. The current weight-based system can lead to material being recycled when it could be reused instead. Reusing items, by passing on old phones or selling them might be good for the circular economy, but it means that less WEEE is available to meet the national collection targets. As the weight of technology has reduced, especially for televisions, this also distorts the figures as new equipment is replacing heavier, older technology.

Sales-based targets can also be problematic as people don’t always buy replacement equipment. For example, many homes have purchased bread makers or juicers, but they rarely buy replacements. The existing ones are just as likely to be stuck away in cupboards rather than being sent for recycling or passed on for reuse. 

BIS is currently running a collection trial with WRAP to drive up reuse. It hopes to use the results of the trial to show that reuse can be increased without targets being implemented at EU level.

Reducing WEEE

Considine outlined what Samsung is doing to reduce WEEE, including refurbishing mobile phones and making smart TVs that can be accessed and repaired remotely. He also explained Samsung’s work to create an open standard for ‘smart home’ products so that products aren’t rendered obsolete as smart technology is developed.

He also challenged everyone to think big. He said that the UK does not have a large manufacturing sector and so there is no point in stockpiling recyclable material. Instead he claims we should be making it easier to ship the material to countries where it can be used to close the loop most effectively.

Thinking big

There is a good argument for stating that the new system has made an encouraging start. But we certainly can’t forget about WEEE just now. Over the next four years, industry will have the opportunity to ask whether future targets are the right targets and whether the focus should be on the category of a product or the resources it is made of. To help achieve the goal of a circular economy, ERP is supporting WRAP’s Electrical and Electronic Equipment Sustainability Action Plan (eSAP) and partnering an EU project on critical rare earth recovery from WEEE. We are also commissioning research into the future of extended producer responsibility in the context of a circular economy.

The next four years will provide a critical chance to improve the WEEE and other extended producer responsibility systems, placing them central to the circular economy. This should have a positive impact for all stakeholders: local authorities, producers, distributors, retailers, the recycling industry and consumers.

Scott Butler is regional director for UK and Ireland at the European Recycling Platform, the pan-European compliance scheme.

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