Consultation to reform WEEE compliance

Government plans secondary legislation to ensure parity for online retailers, with a particular focus on improving management of small WEEE and disposable vapes

Small WEEEThe Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and devolved administrations have launched a consultation on the proposed reforms to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations 2013.

This review seeks to overhaul the current system of WEEE collection and recycling, as well as encourage the design of future products to have ‘a lower environmental impact than those which we consume today’. Central to these proposed changes are updates to the collection infrastructure for household WEEE, modifications in distributor take-back obligations, and the introduction of new responsibilities for online marketplaces and producers of vapes.

The current approach for managing e-waste relies on producers' responsibility and has been notably successful with larger items since its introduction in 2007. However, according to a recent report commissioned by Material Focus, it falls short in the area of smaller household WEEE, with an estimated 155,000 tonnes being incorrectly disposed of in regular waste each year.

The Government notes high levels of public interest in recycling and the need to align this with the broader goals of a circular economy, to reduce the overall generation of EEE waste. The consultation states that this is also likely to include extending these improved practices to include WEEE produced by businesses and public sector organisations.

Addressing the challenges posed by the increasing volume and complexity of discarded electronics is a key target for the proposed reforms. Current systems have struggled to effectively collect, treat, and recycle these materials, leading to environmental concerns and the loss of valuable resources. The rapid advancement in technology and consumer demand for new products exacerbate the amount of electronic waste, underscoring the need for an overhaul of the system.

WEEE Consultation

The consultation aims to ensure that producers and distributors of electrical and electronic equipment are responsible for financing the full net cost of managing their products at the end of life. This includes improving systems to increase the quantity of WEEE that is separately collected and ensuring it is treated and recycled properly. There is also a focus on encouraging the design and production of electronic products that are more durable, repairable, and recyclable, thus reducing their overall environmental impact.

The Government is exploring how to enhance the collection infrastructure for household WEEE, with the intention that producers and retailers will provide funding to enable this. The aim is to increase the amount of WEEE that is collected separately from households. Proposed improvements include better access to collection points for consumers, more efficient logistics for collecting and transporting WEEE, and increased cooperation between local authorities and producers. This approach is intended to not only make the collection process more efficient but also to ensure that a greater volume of WEEE is channelled into appropriate recycling and treatment facilities.

Significant changes are also proposed for the obligations of distributors, including both brick-and-mortar retailers and online sellers. The aim is to ensure that these entities play a more active role in the collection and recycling of WEEE. Proposed measures include requiring retailers to provide take-back services for small WEEE items free of charge, regardless of whether a purchase is made. For larger items, retailers might be required to offer collection services upon delivery of new products. These changes are designed to make it more convenient for consumers to return their used electronics, thereby increasing the rates of collection and recycling.

Recognising the growing role of online marketplaces in the distribution of electronic goods, the consultation suggests introducing specific responsibilities for these platforms in managing WEEE. This might include obligations to ensure that the products sold via these marketplaces adhere to WEEE regulations and contribute to the financing of collection and recycling schemes.

Additionally, the consultation addresses the emerging issue of vape products, proposing that producers of these items be responsible for financing the recycling costs when they become waste. This is a response to the growing market for vapes and the need to manage their disposal responsibly as they become an increasingly significant stream of electronic waste.

Industry reaction

Initial response to the consultation has been positive. Scott Butler, Executive Director, Material Focus said: "The UK Government’s consultation on the waste electrical regulations (WEEE Regulations) is a once in a ten year opportunity to reframe the system to ensure that the UK stops valuable materials contained in electricals being thrown away forever.  Waste electricals are one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK with over 100,000 tonnes thrown away and 880 million unwanted items stored in UK homes."

"Waste electricals contain a range of valuable materials, such as lithium and copper, that could play a key role in the green and circular economy, and ensure that the UK has sustainable access to critical raw materials.  With the rapid rise in the sale of FastTech items such as vapes, mini-fans, cheap  earphones and charging cables, and with the 90% of these items currently being thrown away, we need to take urgent action to make it much easier for consumers to recycle these and other items.  Doorstep and household collections and retailer take-back together have a key role to play.”

Louise Grantham, Chief Executive of REPIC, commented: “We warmly welcome the publication of the WEEE consultation. While the revised WEEE Regulations have operated successfully since 2013, the entire sector acknowledges the need for continuous improvements to achieve a truly circular economy.

“The consultation process provides a valuable opportunity for collective action and innovation. We look forward to playing a constructive role in the ongoing dialogue.”

Recolight Chief Executive Nigel Harvey said: “This consultation is long overdue, but it is pleasing that it has prioritised some ‘quick wins’ for early implementation. For the lighting industry, the most important is no doubt action to end the scourge of WEEE non-compliance through online marketplaces. Research has shown that the overwhelming majority of smaller electrical products, such as light bulbs, offered for sale through online marketplaces do not comply with the WEEE regulations. The proposed changes will require marketplaces to finance the WEEE obligations of products from outside the UK sold via their
platform. For the lighting industry, this cannot happen soon enough.”

He added “We also welcome the proposed changes to make it easier for consumers to recycle, via household collections and enhanced retailer takeback obligations. Research has shown that some 155,000 tonnes of WEEE are discarded each year in the residual waste. And yet, increasing producer targets has not increased WEEE collections. Instead, what is needed, is an expansion of the options open to consumers to recycle. There is ample evidence that shows consumers will recycle when the infrastructure, and communications are in place.”

Implementation strategy

The consultation outlines a strategy for implementing the proposed reforms in phases, with some measures anticipated to commence as early as this year. Immediate reforms focus on regulations targeting online marketplaces and vapes, reflecting the need to address rapidly evolving sectors within the electronics market and set a precedent for broader regulatory changes.

Significant changes, particularly the revamped household collection infrastructure, are anticipated to roll out from 2026. This long-term vision includes more accessible and efficient collection points for consumers, enhanced cooperation between local authorities and producers, and possibly innovative collection solutions.

In addition to the household collection system, the long-term plan includes continuous evaluation and adaptation of regulations to ensure they remain effective and aligned with technological advancements and market changes. This might involve adjusting producer fees, adopting new recycling technologies, or expanding the scope of products covered under the WEEE regulations. The phased approach allows for gradual adaptation by all stakeholders, ensuring that each step is manageable and effective while keeping the ultimate goal of a sustainable, circular economy in sight.

The focus on designing products for easier disassembly and recycling could transform waste treatment processes, making them more efficient and less costly. However, this shift also demands that the industry adapts to new types of materials and components, which may present initial challenges.

The consultation's emphasis on a circular economy suggests that the waste and recycling industry may evolve from a service focused primarily on disposal to one that is an integral part of the supply chain, contributing valuable materials back into the production cycle. This shift represents both an opportunity for growth and a need for adaptation in terms of skills, technology, and business models.

Accompanying this consultation - which runs until 7 March - are an impact assessment and a supplementary Call for Evidence.

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