Large retailers will have to offer in-store WEEE take-back from 2021

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has approved the fifth phase of its Distributor Takeback Scheme (DTS) for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), confirming that the DTS will cease to be applicable for larger retailers by the end of 2020.

An image of waste televisions

Under the UK WEEE Regulations, retailers must ensure that their customers are able to return unwanted electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) on a like-for-like basis when they purchase new items. The fourth phase of the DTS, which came to an end on 31 December 2019, allowed retailers to pay a fee to cover these recycling obligations, providing funds for local authority WEEE collection schemes at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) and civic amenity sites.

Under the new system, larger retailers with an excess of £100,000 of turnover in sales of EEE will no longer be able to join the DTS from 31 December 2020, but will instead be obliged to provide in-store take-back facilities from January 2021. Smaller stores and online retailers will be exempt from the changes.

With the UK at risk of missing its annual WEEE collection targets for the third consecutive year in a row, the new phase of the DTS will aim to improve retailer responsibility and boost collection rates by making it more convenient for consumers to recycle their waste electricals.

According to Defra’s background briefing, convenience and more information is key to encouraging the public to recycle more electronic products – a recent survey of householders found that 42 per cent of people would use WEEE recycling banks at supermarkets and shops if they were available, and 61 per cent would use in-store drop off points in electrical retail stores.

Aiming to encourage proper reuse and recycling, Defra will be rolling out a national communications campaign in 2020 with funding from producers of EEE.

Industry proposal

The decision to change the DTS comes after the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Valpak put forward a proposal in December 2019 urging the government to continue the scheme as it was in order to provide funds for local authorities.

Following confirmation that the government will be reviewing the current WEEE system, BRC and Valpak proposed a two-year interim phase of continued operation from 1 January 2020 to 31 December 2021 to allow the government to undertake its review.

Peter Andrews, Head of Sustainability at the BRC, commented: “Whilst we’re disappointed that our DTS proposal was not fully approved, we’re glad the government has taken the decision to continue the initiative for the time being and we believe key improvements to WEEE collections and recycling can be delivered.

“We look forward to working with the government during its review of the regulations, in particular on how retailers can help towards increasing national WEEE collection rates in the most effective way.”

Although the proposal revealed that phase four of the DTS raised £302,000 per year in fees for local authorities between 2017 and 2019, concerns have been raised over whether retailers were making sufficient payments. Assuming that the funds were raised from the 625 Band A and B members (large and medium-sized retailers), this would mean that each retailer paid just £480 per year.

Commenting on this, Nigel Harvey, Chief Executive of Recolight, said: “It is pleasing that Defra will require larger retailers to collect WEEE instore from the end of this year. It is the right decision – the Distributor Takeback Scheme is no longer fit for purpose.

“For a vanishingly small payment, retailers have been able to avoid playing any part in WEEE collections. But with the UK now consistently missing its WEEE targets, we need all in the supply chain to play their part.”

Online retailers

Although the changes to DTS do not extend to online retailers, the issue of ‘free-riding’ – where online sites evade their commercial obligations by refusing to comply with WEEE regulations – has become increasingly prevalent over recent years.

According to an EU-wide study by trade association EucoLight, a significant number of products sold through online retailers fail to comply with national WEEE requirements, with non-compliance for small products, such as LED lightbulbs, in the range of 78 to 100 per cent.

Calling for Defra to crack down on online free-riders, Harvey said: “An important next step is for Defra to require online marketplaces take full responsibility for the WEEE compliance of products sold through their platforms.

“If they do not do this, there is a risk that high street retailers will see their WEEE duties increase, while online marketplaces continue to facilitate WEEE avoidance. That would simply be wrong.”