New model needed to set ‘robust and realistic’ WEEE targets, says white paper

Socio-economic changes, such as Brexit, and changes in product design should be considered when devising ‘robust and realistic’ new targets for the collection of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), according to a new white paper commissioned by REPIC, a WEEE producer compliance scheme (PCS).

In 2019, due to the WEEE Regulations, the UK WEEE collection targets will increase to either 65 per cent of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) placed on the market (POM) or 85 per cent of WEEE generated (WG).

In the UK, there have been fluctuations in the amount of WEEE POM and the WG that is then reported through the official system, with WEEE collections actually falling short of targets in 2017: 522,901 tonnes of household WEEE were collected against a target of 622,033 tonnes, well below the 581,415 tonnes collected in 2016.

New model needed to set ‘robust and realistic’ WEEE targets, says white paperThe landscape for WEEE is constantly evolving due to changes in consumer behaviour, product types, consumption and disposal patterns and socio-economic factors. Current models used to estimate the amount of WEEE available for collection are limited in their ability to reflect these changes accurately. As such, REPIC commissioned Lancaster University to compile a new white paper, entitled ‘Setting robust and realistic PCS targets for WEEE to support the transition to a Circular Economy’, to explore the limitations of the current model, as well as possible solutions.

The current model used to estimate WEEE POM and WG is the Waste Over Time (WOT) model, which uses national production data and international trade data to calculate the amount of WEEE POM and WG and then aggregates this data against the six EU WEEE categories, which were reduced from 10 in 2018. However, the model does not take into account the 14 categories used in the UK.

REPIC’s report finds that the WOT model ‘does not explicitly account for changes in the stock of products, fluctuations in the market and wider socio-economic conditions, or trends in product types and unit weights’, with improvements needed to the current method of data collection to better track WEEE POM and WG for the 14 UK categories.

Limitations of the current model and future work

When calculating PCS targets, the availability of WEEE to these schemes must be taken into account, as well as the factors that may affect their availability. Surveys were undertaken as part of the REPIC study, with concerns arising that the following factors were not being taken into account when calculating targets:

  • Unreported flows, second-hand markets, weight changes in products, differences in product design lifespan and household residence times, and component part removal and theft could cause discrepancies between WG and WEEE collected;
  • Tightening restrictions on hazardous chemicals in EEE products could limit the viability for recycling materials from WEEE;
  • The UK has limited capacity for processing cooling equipment, which could prove problematic when higher targets are set;
  • Scrap metal and iron spot price volatility affect the demand for the recovery of these materials from WEEE;
  • Retailers in the market may conduct activities that indirectly restrict access to WEEE by PCSs;
  • Small appliances are less viable for reuse, and often end up being stored rather than put out for collection or thrown out into the residual stream;
  • Collection undertaken by other third parties involved in reuse and/or recycling and not financed by PCSs may not be reported in the official system;
  • Socio-economic changes, for example Brexit, the EU Circular Economy Package, inflation, labour costs, business rates and material pricing all impact on where WEEE flows and how accessible it is to a PCS; and
  • Future technology innovation and the role of reuse also need to be taken into account.

These issues are compounded by data deficiencies inherent in the WOT model, including:

  • Unreported WEEE flows, both legitimate and illegitimate, via second-hand and used EEE markets, recycling through the scrap stream and losses through the residual waste stream;
  • Changes in product design, product types and product lightweighting lead to changes in weight, which skew product weights relative to WEEE POM and WG; and
  • Product lifespans and residence times (the amount of time a product stays within a household) need improved data, as current data is limited and largely based on stated product lifespans and a limited number of studies.

As part of REPIC and Lancaster University’s project, a new prototype dynamic flow model has been developed to improve the mapping of WEEE as it moves through the system, including factors that account for and seek to reflect fluctuations in the economy that affect changes in WEEE POM and WG.

Further work is required to develop a usable model that accounts for socio-economic conditions, which could be reflected through, but not limited to, the following parameters:

  • Inflation-adjusted GDP per household;
  • Wealth distribution across the population;
  • Inflation-adjusted prices of a given product;
  • Percentages of households with no or multiple units of a given product;
  • Number of businesses owning a given product; and
  • Number of households.

A new dynamic model could indicate the level of free-riding from producers that do not comply with their obligations under the WEEE Regulations – estimates suggesting that 5-10 per cent of WEEE is lost in the system through this route – by looking at the difference between the modelled and reported WEEE POM, while looking at the difference between modelled WG and WEEE collected could indicate how much is lost to unreported flows.

‘A clear knowledge gap’

Commenting on the research, Mark Burrows Smith, Chief Executive of REPIC, said: “The initial findings documented in the report show improvements in modelling and target setting are clearly possible.

“There’s a clear knowledge gap. Improvements in data need to be addressed before we can effectively develop a model that will help inform future government waste policy and industry decision making. The targets for the whole of the UK will increase considerably in 2019.

“The work undertaken by Lancaster University has provided an in-depth analysis of the data availability and gaps, state of the art modelling and detailed recommendations to develop the new model and improve data intelligence.”

Dr Alison Stowell, principal investigator from Pentland Centre at Lancaster University, added: “The initial research has helped us to identify the undesirable flows of WEEE so any future target setting model can better replicate market dynamics. Before modelling, it is evident that further research is required around unreported flows, mass balance, lifespan and residence times. This deeper dive would provide more accurate information regarding product lifespan and time horizons from EEE POM to waste generated. This is especially important given the UK’s Circular Economy and Clean Growth strategy, which includes ambitious targets to achieve zero avoidable waste by 2050.”

You can view REPIC’s report, ‘Setting robust and realistic PCS targets for WEEE to support the transition to a Circular Economy’, in its entirety on the dedicated report website.

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