EEEvolution: Rewiring the recovery system for WEEE
The value of materials in WEEE acts as high motivation for their reclamation and reuse, making the system an interesting test case for establishing principles of a truly circular economy. Beth Simpson explores the changes that need to be made.
Technology moves fast in the 21st Century and nowhere in the recycling sector is this more apparent than in electronic waste. Since the EU’s initial WEEE directive in 2003, a revolution has occurred. Smartphones – with their built-in obsolescence, those annoying non-universal parts and the use of rare minerals such as cobalt and lithium – have become ubiquitous. Elsewhere, sales of electronics have all increased dramatically. The UK recycling and collection system for WEEE was set up in 2007 – before tablets even existed – and has found it hard to keep pace.
The system assumes consumers take e-waste to either a local municipal site or a take-back facility where it is collected to be recycled at an Approved Authorised Treatment Facility (AATF). The producers pay for this via a mandatory compliance scheme. Every producer has to tell the compliance scheme how much they are putting onto the market each year. In return, the scheme calculates how much the producer has to pay for its WEEE to be collected and recycled. The scheme gains evidence on behalf of its members that the WEEE is recycled via the AATF.
The system needs to change
The trouble is, even by its own criteria of tonnage targets, the scheme hasn’t increased the amount of WEEE recycled. Despite the rise in the total amount of electronics on the market, the amount of WEEE collected has remained fairly stable. Indeed it even fell back slightly from 16,000 to 15,000 tonnes per annum between 2017 and 2021, according to data collated by the compliance scheme REPIC. Many industry observers claim that the system is no longer fit for purpose.
“It doesn’t encourage collection,” says Cris Stephenson, CEO of AATF Environcom. “The UK has stalled on its percentage of collection and overall has failed to collect what has been targeted. For me, the system was a good way of starting. But it’s a bit like saying ‘I bought a Ford model T. It’s much better than walking.’ You wouldn’t genuinely drive around in a Ford Model T now – it only goes at 20 mph and it’s as cold as hell.”
For one thing, it doesn’t take into account the informal reuse that goes on. Many consumers, instead of taking their e-waste to a municipal site, ‘recycle’ it via eBay, Facebook Marketplace, or (if they’re feeling generous) Freecycle. Robbie Staniforth, Innovation and Policy Director of Ecosurety says: “Some people – I dare say the majority – will just put electronics in their car and, the next time they go to the tip, take them along with all other types of household waste. Other people who think more deeply about it will explore other options, such as taking it to a charity shop or repair organisation.
“But that requires someone to be passionate and bothered enough to do the research. Many people are making that decision themselves about whether this thing can continue to circulate in the economy and they are ill-equipped to do that. So by default, many useable electronics gather dust in people’s drawers or are simply thrown away.”
The system also keeps the focus, both within legislation and in the minds of consumers, on recycling rates whereas the concept of reclamation has the potential to be more powerful – to shift focus onto the value of the valuable materials within WEEE, and the need to make use of them immediately and effectively.
Both Staniforth and Stephenson are adamant it’s high time for a change which takes into account patterns of consumer behaviour and for targets to be adjusted accordingly. The long-awaited government consultancy for reforming WEEE regulations is expected to appear sometime this year. Many stakeholders hope that, when it is eventually published, it takes account of these changes and perhaps extends producer responsibility.
There are, however, some signs that producers are already stepping up and taking on more responsibility for collection and disposal. Apple, for example, has put in place a trade-in policy whereby if you return an existing product you can apply its value towards a future purchase.
Others are starting to move to what is, in effect, a rental model. “You can already see this in place with items such as TV set-top boxes,” says Robbie Staniforth. “It’s happening because those firms don’t want to keep on putting capital outlay into the system. You see also it with mobile phones with some of the trade-in deals, and the bigger ticket items to some degree.”
He is doubtful though it could work for everything: “There are some electronic goods that people have that sentimental attachment to and want to own - musical equipment, hi-fis. But there are many things right the way down to a toothbrush that people are not sentimental about. The reason to do that for many companies is not the greater good or the good of the environment, it just makes economic sense.”
Design for reuse
Design for reuse and sustainability is also becoming more of a factor, with some producers taking into consideration the ease of disassembly, modularity and material choices which make it easier to keep the minerals in a circular loop. FROLIC is an Amsterdam-based innovation studio which has developed a new sustainably-designed smart speaker. Their spokesperson said that “the world of electronics is turning green with modular designs and standardised interfaces that make it as easy to take apart and reassemble your devices and their components or upgrade them instead of buying a new one. Some manufacturers even incorporate durable and repairable materials that withstand countless drops, spills, and general wear and tear.”
Steve George, Sustainability Manager of vacuum cleaner manufacturer Numatic International, suggests that for larger consumer items, much of this involves ensuring keycomponents are easily replaceable. “In our case, it’s the life-limiting things that are usually given the greatest battering like the hose and the motor – there’s a lot of talk of ensuring that they are changable. You might say that the UK is already there with the right to repair but there are two streams. There are things the consumer should be allowed to repair that we can provide spare parts for but there’s a second level where only approved repairers should be allowed to repair. That is where we’re heading.”
Others are more doubtful whether electronic products are being designed specifically with reuse in mind: “At the end of the day we design a product to last for a reasonable period of time,” says Andrew Mullen, Quality Manager of Beko, a UK home appliance brand. “Now whether or not that’s with one customer or with several customers it really makes no difference as to the way we design it. Nobody would buy our appliances if they found that they only lasted a couple of years. So I don’t expect to see EPR having a direct impact on design to reuse.”
A new system
There are also changes in technology that any new legislation would have to take into account. “Over the last few years there has been a lot of lightweighting,” says Louise Grantham, Chief Executive of REPIC. “If you look at consumer electronics - years ago you’d have massive stack hi-fi systems and now you have all that on a phone. So setting [collection] targets is quite difficult. This is why I think we’ll potentially see more of a move away from this focus on them to things like ‘How good is the collection network? How good is consumer awareness of recycling?’"
FROLIC agrees that legislation should look beyond targets, suggesting that “regulations may require providing consumers with information about how to repair and reuse products.”
Clearly, something needs to change. Some are doubtful that EPR legislation will be able to deliver the transformation required. “My cynical point of view is that in 10 years’ time probably much won’t have changed,” says Cris Stephenson. “Which will be a great tragedy. But if EPR finally comes in and the retailers who deliver are forced to collect and much more of it comes through that way, then you will see vastly improved reuse, which is only going to be good for the circular economy and the environment.”
“There’s been lots of talk about ‘how can we promote greater recycling of waste electronics?’ and ‘we need to make it more convenient for people’,” says Robbie Staniforth. “Yes, it would be more convenient to have better access to recycling electronic goods, but in a way, it’s making it easier to just throw stuff away. We should be focusing higher up the waste hierarchy and trying to get stuff that’s currently recycled or disposed of into a reuse system.”