UK households sitting on £17bn of small electricals, says report

UK households could have made £17 billion from second hand resale value of the old small electricals lying around their home, around £620 per household, according to a recent study by non-profit organisation Material Focus.

The study, released yesterday (24 June) and entitled ‘Hidden Treasures’, revealed that households across the UK are throwing away 155,000 tonnes of small electricals every year. This equates to a total of 527 million disused electrical products, or 20 per household. If these products were to be reused or passed on, they would have a total resale value of £17 billion.

In turn, the reuse or passing on of disused electricals would result in potential savings of £370 million for the UK economy. This figure is the total value of the valuable or rare metals, such as gold, silver, aluminium or steel, found in these products. 

A computer circuit boardFurthermore, with an estimated two million tonnes of electrical waste discarded by the public every year, reusing and repurposing small electricals could save up to 2.8 million tonnes in carbon emissions, or the equivalent of taking 1.3 million cars off the road. Among the most hoarded electrical products are laptops, speakers and cables, which total just over 200 million across the UK.

Recycle Your Electricals campaign

In a bid to prevent the permanent loss of valuable raw materials found in electrical items from the UK economy, Material Focus has launched a nationwide campaign, ‘Recycle Your Electricals’, to encourage households to start reusing and recycling their electricals.

As part of the campaign, Material Focus has launched an information hub, making it easier for households to access recycling facilities. The campaign is calling on UK householders to gather up their old unwanted electricals and then put them in a bag ready to be recycled once lockdown has lifted and local recycling facilities have reopened. A new postcode finder has launched on the campaign website with details of over 2,000 recycling, repair and reuse points, with new collection and drop-off points being added to the site on an ongoing basis.

The campaign has also partnered with award-winning photographer Gregg Segal, known for his works of social commentary, and UK householders are invited to share pictures, videos and stories of themselves recycling small old electricals or Gregg Segal style selfie surrounded by their electricals using the hashtags #RecycleYourElectricals #HiddenTreasures #GreggSegal #Dontbinitbagit, tagging @RecycleYourElectricals on Facebook, Twitter @RecycleElectric on Twitter and @RecycleYourElectricals_ on Instagram.

Speaking on the new initiative, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “With so many millions of small electricals not being correctly recycled or reused in the UK, we urgently need to recognise that raw materials are finite and every electrical item thrown in the bin or stashed in a draw is a waste of valuable resources. I am very pleased to be supporting this new campaign and will be looking around my home for unwanted electrical items which I can bag up and take to the local recycling centre. It’s important to hold on to items and not throw them in the bin if your local recycling centre has not yet re-opened.

“More broadly the government is committed to moving to a more circular economy, and we will be reviewing the regulations on electrical items to help drive up recycling, encourage better eco-design so products last longer and ensure manufacturers and retailers take more responsibility for waste electricals.”

Though it is possible for 75 per cent of materials in small old unwanted electricals to be recycled, the UK is consistently falling short of its waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collection targets. The management of WEEE, which is governed by the UK WEEE Regulations 2013, missed these targets for the third year running in 2019.

In spite of these shortcomings, and despite promising figures from the first quarter of 2020, the sector has faced similar challenges to other sectors of the waste industry during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has negatively affected the entire recycling supply chain. For the WEEE sector specifically, the pandemic has caused disruption to kerbside WEEE collections, store take-back services and a restricted flow of WEEE to electrical waste recyclers, due to the mass closure of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs)

To soften the impact of the pandemic on the WEEE sector, the WEEE Fund, which is financed by the annual WEEE compliance fee, announced last month that it will be providing electrical waste recyclers with more than £5 million in financial support. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) also announced this month (8 June) that any methodology for calculating the 2020 WEEE compliance fee will take the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic into account.

Solving the e-waste problem

WEEE is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, with around 50 million metric tonnes generated globally in 2018, with huge amounts of undocumented exports of such waste to developing countries – 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented e-waste is estimated to be exported from the EU every year to countries in Africa and Asia.

Parliament’s Environment Audit Committee (EAC) recently relaunched its inquiry into e-waste and the circular economy, with evidence sessions currently taking place remotely.

Commenting on the Material Focus report, EAC Chair Philip Dunne MP said: “This research brings into sharp focus why we need to start dealing properly with the UK’s mountain of hoarded electronics and e-waste, but also preventing electronics becoming waste in the first place. It not only makes environmental sense – potentially saving 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 – it could also save the UK economy over £370 million if precious and rare metals found within electronics can be reused.”

“The desire to upgrade our devices continuously, coupled with the poor design of some products, is creating a growing mountain of electronic waste. Many gadgets are wrongly discarded in household bins destined for the dump or incineration rather than recycling. If the UK is to maintain its position as a world-leader in protecting the environment, we have to manage our e-waste better and make the transition to a more efficient circular economy.”

You can read more about the Recycle Your Electricals campaign on the campaign website.

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