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How the world has changed over a decade of WEEE regulations

The extent of the incredible change in technology and how it is recycled in the 10 years since UK waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) regulations were introduced, has been detailed by producer responsibility organisation the European Recycling Platform (ERP).

ERP UK, which started operating when the UK WEEE Directive was introduced in 2007, this week published the ’10 years of WEEE in the UK’ report, which reflects on the impact the regulations have had on producers, consumers, retailers, local authorities and waste treatment operators; and assesses the achievements to date and the key challenges and developments ahead.

In rare form
In those ten years, regulations have developed and the technology being created and used has changed completely in both scale and design. As well as the UK WEEE Directive, 2007 also saw the launch of the first iPhone – a landmark that began a decade of unprecedented change in small devices. 

Technology revolution

Since the launch of the first iPhone that same summer, phones have gotten smaller, and then bigger; CDs and DVDs have been replaced by digital downloads and, pivotally, televisions have been slimmed down as plasma gave way to LCD and LED technology and cathode ray tube (CRT) sets were phased out.

John Redmayne, ERP UK General Manager explains: “The move from CRT TVs to flat screens drove change throughout the system. We had to change how waste was collected, stored, and sorted at local authority level, and in the decommissioning and separation of elements carried out by our partners further along the chain.” The switch from CRT TVs, ERP says, resulted in increased recycling at both retail trade-ins and local authority recycling centres.

According to the report, 95 per cent of UK households own a mobile phone now, compared to 78 per cent in 2007, and 47 per cent in 2000. It states: ‘If we assume two phones per household are changed every two years, it adds up to an eye-watering 247 million phones in the last 10 years.’

The continued development of technology will lead to the digitisation of the home and public life, something Resource has looked at in a feature on the advent smart cities. ERP says that this will present a unique recycling challenge, with more pieces of technology being used, but at much smaller sizes than before – close to two million tonnes of EEE are places on the market each year, a figure that is set to increase.

Producer challenges

As well as technology developing over the past decade, the regulations themselves have been altered to address certain challenges for the recycling sector.

Following the introduction of the WEEE regulations in 2007, the report says, the biggest challenge for UK-based producers was the ‘must buy’ system for the recycling of WEEE, which, it explains, encouraged price hikes in the costs of obtaining evidence for recycled WEEE, particularly at the end of the year when compliance was finally submitted, creating a ‘closed market’.

This changed in 2013, when the UK WEEE Regulations introduced the compliance fee for schemes that had not managed to collect enough. The report states: ‘The result is a more balanced system, which strives to recognise all players in the process, ensure that quality treatment standards are applied more consistently, and that WEEE traceability is in place.’

Dora Caria, ERP Quality and Audit Manager observes that positive changes, it says, have also come in the quality of WEEE treatment: “Treatment processes have become increasingly efficient in the last decade, with improved removal of regulated substances.

“Furthermore, we’re monitoring recycling performance more effectively, through auditing and conducting technical studies. These are important to make sure that recovery rates are accurate and that treatment complies not only with legal regulations but also specific contractual requirements for certain producers.”

Umberto Raiteri, CEO of the ERP explains how joint-working throughout the sector has produced better ways of working: “Through a positive collaborative approach, we’ve been able to participate in discussions based on experience and data, and we’ve been effective at sharing the learning, which is hugely appreciated by local and European legislators. Through our data collection, we’ve also been able to provide benchmarks on collection and return rates, which again is appreciated as it has helped to inform targets.”

However, the report warns that there are still challenges for UK producers to manage. It highlights the uncertainty over Brexit and ‘ever-increasing targets’ as two in particular, but says these are ‘manageable challenges’. Writing in the report, Raiteri said: “The most important counter-measure [against rising targets] is to keep producer costs as low as possible, enabling them to meet stringent targets and ensuring as much WEEE as possible is recycled through the recognised channels.”

The full ‘10 Years of WEEE in the UK’ report can be read on the ERP UK website.

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