Ecosurety calls for more structure around the reuse of WEEE

Robbie Staniforth, Innovation and Policy Director, at producer compliance scheme Ecosurety outlines the need for more structure and incentives around the reuse of EEE.

Environmental legislation to promote repair and resale is not just poor, it is non-existent. The clue is in the first word of the UK legislation’s title: Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations. We are still operating in the confines of an old model of linear economics that accepts waste as a necessary evil. While great strides have been made to professionalise the electricals reuse sector, including the recent publication of vital guidance (such as ‘Fit for Reuse’ – a guide recently published by the Reuse Network), the road to travel is long.

Robbie Staniforth EcosuretyIt is not a journey we are on, but rather a quest. A journey would indicate that those involved in producing or recycling electricals were familiar with the terrain. It is a quest because at every turn the surroundings are unfamiliar. A transition to circular systems of product provision is becoming broadly understood by many but implemented by few. It is this unfamiliarity that causes consternation and procrastination.

Governmental delays to the publication of consultations on this topic are particularly unhelpful. Every quest requires great leadership, and the political merry-go-round has meant that few are stepping forward from the public sector. Meanwhile, in the Reuse Network, the charity sector is trying to step forward to fill the void, alongside other leading commercial WEEE reuse operations. They are undertaking their operations despite legislative assistance, rather than because of it.

The charity sector remains an underutilised asset for transitioning to more circular systems. Its long history of turning waste into resource is not to be overlooked. The question is not whether they can deliver greater levels of repair but how can they be assisted to scale their existing operations. The publication of guidance alone will not be enough to have the kind of impact that is required.

It is hoped that a recent spotlight on enforcement guidance for reuse may help to clarify and standardise interpretations to level the playing field. While it may achieve those aims, it will do little to actually promote higher levels of repair. Guidance, whether it be practical or regulatory, is not the same as legislation. The rules should enable the sector, not be a straitjacket as is currently the case.

Much is made of the potential for producer fee eco-modulation to transform the system but there is a limit to what can be expected in this instance. While such mechanisms are likely to work for fast-moving, short-lifespan goods (think packaging), more nuanced measures are required for electricals.

WEEE graph

It is already possible for ‘reuse’ evidence to be issued in the current system, yet according to Government figures, the total amount has dropped over the last five years. Given reuse operations are carried out on products that are not defined as waste, and therefore do not show up in the Government’s figures, it is near impossible to comment on whether this drop is something to be worried about or not. The challenge is to what degree the Government should be accountable for measuring and managing reuse.

This challenge sits quite apart from what can be done to promote repair operations, though. Some countries already have VAT exemptions for repair activities in a variety of sectors. Expecting producer responsibility to cure all our resource problems is an oversimplification of what is required. While I’m one of the greatest advocates of the polluter pays principle, it only focuses on the stick. The sector is in vital need of more carrots.