The impact of Covid-19 on the UK WEEE sector

Louise Grantham, Chief Executive of REPIC, explores the impact of Covid-19 on the WEEE sector and how the recycling supply chain has been dealing with its effects

Covid-19 does not discriminate and is affecting every person and industry in the world in some way. As the UK Government starts to ease restrictions, the signs are that for many businesses the enforced lockdown has resulted in them considering new ways of doing business.

The waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling supply chain has risen to the challenges Covid-19 has presented – we’ve overcome some, others we continue to address, and others will no doubt arise in the future.

What challenges have we faced?

Louise Grantham, CEO of REPIC
Louise Grantham, CEO of REPIC
When the lockdown was implemented, the majority of local authority Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC) closed temporarily and this resulted in WEEE collections falling by 80 per cent.

At a time when people were spending more time at home and clearing out cupboards, sheds and garages, other potential recycling routes for unwanted electricals were affected too. Charity reuse cut off with many high street shops and collection points closed, collection of old appliances through home delivery networks significantly restricted as social distancing measures were put in place, and those appliances usually collected through warranty repairs all remained uncollected in homes and workplaces.

Despite the site closures and reduction in the collection of WEEE towards the end of March, the UK WEEE collections data released for quarter one 2020 by the Environment Agency reported that total household WEEE collections in the quarter were slightly ahead of the pro-rata 2020 target. The data also showed an overall increase in collections when compared to the same quarter in 2019, however this seems largely reflective of the implementation of the revised small mixed WEEE and Large Household Appliances (LHA) protocols and the fact that only the last week of 2020 quarter one was affected by the Covid-19 lockdown.

This position is very unlikely to be the case in quarter two 2020 and we are facing an uncertain outlook as the sector works together to manage the impact and operational changes to WEEE collections necessitated by Covid-19. Whilst today many HWRCs have reopened, not all sites can accept all WEEE streams and in general less WEEE can be collected because site access needs to be carefully controlled to ensure the safety of the public and site operatives. All this means achievement of the 2020 target currently seems unlikely.

The limited collection of WEEE significantly reduced the flow of electricals for reuse and recycling, having a financial impact on the electrical waste treatment facilities and the charity sector reuse organisations. Addressing this challenge, and working with the sector to explore ideas, the WEEE Fund put in place a timely solution. Announcing a ‘WEEE Support Grants and Loans Package’ to support those organisations through the lockdown period, with the objective of retaining a WEEE system that is dynamic and competitive, and with the capacity to cope with any post-crisis spikes, once restrictions are lifted.

What challenges do we face now?

HWRCs have been one of the waste services hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with 90 per cent of sites having been reported as closed at some point. There was significant debate during the height of the lockdown as to whether a trip to a HWRC was considered an ‘essential trip’ for householders during the lockdown, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) clarified through the publication of guidance, urging councils to reopen their sites amid reports of increased fly-tipping and disruption to bulky waste services.

With varying restrictions still in place nationwide on the wastes HWRCs are able to accept, our team of account managers are continuing to support our local authority partners operationally, as they reopen their HWRCs. Collections can sometimes be challenging for our transport service providers with the changes local authorities are having to make to site arrangements to ensure the public can safely deposit their waste can result in queues of cars forming on a daily basis. Treatment facilities are also having to change the way they work to ensure their staff can safely handle waste electricals for recycling.

With the restrictions over depositing WEEE, there is a risk that some unwanted electricals will be lost in the residual waste stream. The timely campaign from Material Change, supported by the WEEE Fund, “to bag up and drop off unused, broken or waste electrical appliances through the appropriate channels when normal service resumes” is welcomed and continues to be eagerly supported by the sector.

Despite the restrictions in lockdown, sales of some products increased, with spikes in IT equipment to accommodate home working and fridges and freezers being purchased to store food. Online sales of electricals have also increased. However, this situation may not continue against the backdrop of the UK facing an economic downturn, and the number of devices being upgraded or replaced could fall, having a big impact on the future volume of WEEE arising, with household appliances being kept for longer than initially planned due to householders facing financial constraints.

What challenges do we expect in the future?

Setting the household WEEE collection target for 2020 at the end of March was challenging for Defra in these circumstances. The UK WEEE regime offers a safety valve by providing the option of a compliance fee as a way for PCSs to comply in the event there is insufficient WEEE available for collection. The year will be financially challenging for all organisations and we welcome Defra’s commitment that it will “absolutely take account of the actual impacts that Covid-19 has had on collections during the year” when setting a compliance fee methodology.

It is difficult to predict how WEEE collections will recover during the remainder of 2020. There is likely to be an initial spike when householders can deposit any unwanted electricals they have held onto, however, with concern about a potential economic downturn, this could be short lived if sales of new electricals fall and householders hold onto products for longer.

In addition, sales of new electricals in 2020 are unlikely to be representative of other years, so these factors combined mean setting the WEEE collection targets for 2021 will be challenging. The WEEE Fund has recently commissioned work to understand how Covid-19 has impacted sales and disposals and develop a forecasting tool that will hopefully assist with this.