UK to become world’s biggest e-waste contributor by 2024

Several studies suggest that the UK could become the world’s largest e-waste contributor as early as 2024.

E-wasteGlobally, the UK is currently the second largest contributor of e-waste at 23.9kg per capita. It follows the biggest contributor, Norway, which is responsible for 26kg of e-waste per capita each year.

According to a Uswitch study, since records began in 2008, IT and telecoms e-waste has nearly doubled in size, with projections suggesting that e-waste in the UK could rise as high as 55,000 tonnes by the year 2030.

According to the report, should this upward trend continue, the UK is on course to overtake Norway and become the world’s largest contributor to e-waste by the year 2024.

Conversely, Norway has been actively improving its e-waste management through its ‘take-back’ scheme which encourages businesses to take responsibility for the issue. Switzerland, the third largest contributor of e-waste per capita has a similar scheme.

Through the scheme, firms that produce or import electronic waste are required to help finance the e-waste and recycling industry. Currently, there exist five approved take-back companies within Norway with over 5000 member producers/importers.

Resultantly, the recycling rate for e-waste in Norway stood at 43.9 per cent in the year 2018, whilst the figure for the UK in 2021 was just 31.2 per cent.

How is e-waste currently disposed of in the UK?

UK producers are responsible for their e-waste under the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Regulations that became law in 2014 before being later updated in 2018.

The legislation requires producers of more than five tonnes of e-waste to join a producer compliance scheme (PCS). PCSs are separate companies that are tasked with the collection and recycling of e-waste, and disposing of WEEE at Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities (AATFs). Currently, 28 such companies exist in the UK.

Businesses are required to take back waste regardless of how the product is purchased – whether online or in-store – and regardless of the brand.

Businesses must also take back items that have the same function. For example, they must offer to take back a customer’s old kettle if they buy a new one, or offer to take back a DVD player should a customer purchase a new Blu-ray player.

This must be offered for free by businesses, with only transport costs needing to be covered should the item be collected from the customer’s home. Customers are also required to be provided with 28 days to return their electronic items.

Different rules apply to ‘very small WEEE’, namely items of e-waste that are shorter than 25 cm on their longest side.

Companies are required to take back all forms of very small WEEE should their electrical and electronic equipment sales area be greater than 400 square metres, a figure that includes aisles, displays and shelf space.

Records of all e-waste that is collected and disposed of are required to be kept by all producers. This should include the total number of items of waste collected and the amount of units disposed of via a PCS. These records should be made available to consumers and must be kept for four years.

Has the UK’s e-waste disposal been successful?

Eunomia reports that the UK is one of the worst in the European Economic Area (EEA) when it comes to e-waste disposal.

Material Focus found that over 155,000 tonnes of e-waste are disposed of each year in general household rubbish bins. A further 190,000 tonnes of e-waste is estimated to be neglected within people’s homes.

In particular, according to OKdo, old charging cables are the worst offender when it comes to not disposing of e-waste in the UK. It estimates that over two-thirds (68 per cent) of households are holding on to at least one charger, with a further 12 per cent hoarding three or more.

Material focus estimates that 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions – equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road – can be saved should all of the small electricals being hoarded or thrown away be returned to the economy.

What is next for the UK’s e-waste problem?

Via the Environment Improvement plan published earlier this year, the UK government has committed to improvements to its WEEE waste management system, with the objective of ‘making it easier for people to properly dispose of their electrical waste including ensuring the provision of adequately funded communications to consumers’.

This is expected to be further outlined later in the year with the government’s expected WEEE consultation.

The consultation will be split into two parts. The first part covers government proposals that are supported by impact assessments; it will seek to examine whether reform is needed and investigate the potential impacts of suggested solutions.

In particular, the consultation will focus on reforms that aim to increase reuse and recycling by increasing the take-back obligations of producers and distributors. It will aim to do this by introducing a producer-funded household collection service for e-waste, improving take-back services for online sellers and creating obligations for online electronics sellers for their electricals sold via their marketplace from overseas organisations.

A separate collection category is also expected to mitigate the ongoing issue regarding the waste of vapes and e-cigarettes.

The second part of the consultation will consist of a call for evidence from experts and organisations. It will explore areas of policy viewed as weaker and seek knowledge from stakeholders on how to make improvements to the proposals.

Specifically, this will include proposals surrounding a push to the circular economy, increasing business-to-business WEEE collection and the suggestion of new metrics to measure the success of any incoming WEEE regulations.

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