WEEE industry consultation likely to prompt much needed reforms
In their newly published Environment Improvement plan, the Government commits to consult on improvements to the WEEE system in 2023 “making it easier for people to properly dispose of their electrical waste including ensuring provision of adequately funded communications to consumers”. To their credit, officials have already held informal discussions with stakeholder groups. That means we can be reasonably confident of some of the headline proposals on which they are likely to consult:
- Moving the point of producer responsibility – in essence, providing householders and businesses with free of charge collection of WEEE. For householders, that might include strengthened obligations on distributors. In particular, free collection of used appliances when delivering new appliances.
- Better embedding of circular economy principles in the regulations. That could include changes to drive a greater focus on reuse and repair, rather than recycling, and also measures to encourage better eco-design of new products.
- Tackling the scourge of non-compliant product sold via online marketplaces. The likely solution would be to create a new class of producer. This would require online marketplaces to take on the financial obligations for collection and treatment of their overseas sellers. This would be consistent with the current packaging reforms.
- A review of how financial obligations on producers are set and the metrics that should in future be used to measure success of a reformed system.
- Establishment of a new category for vapes to ensure the cost of collection and treatment of these products is correctly borne by vape producers
For many of us in the industry, these changes will be welcomed but may also present some challenges.
Some will inevitably object to the proposal that consumers should have access to household collection of WEEE. And yet, collection from the home makes it far more likely that repairable product will be returned into the WEEE system. This is because by the time it is collected from a household waste recycling centre, most electrical products are irremediably damaged. And if implemented correctly, this change can largely rely on existing vehicle movements, thus minimising any additional carbon emissions – and indeed producing carbon savings by increasing the level of reuse.
For too long, the WEEE sector has largely, but not universally, focused on recycling rather than re-use. That needs to change. The circular economy is a vital way in which we can deliver outcomes to tackle the climate crisis. Increasing levels of repair and reuse of appropriate products saves embedded carbon, and improves material efficiency. And although some product categories are more amenable to reuse and repair than others, regulatory mechanisms that actively encourage more reuse would be very beneficial.
There are many producers who may push back against including eco design requirements within WEEE. That is because the UK already has existing eco-design regulations to drive more resource efficient and energy efficient products and so including similar requirements within WEEE risks over complicating the system.
Any objections to the proposals to better regulate product sold via online marketplaces will probably be limited to a few online marketplaces. When Defra first mooted the proposal for waste packaging, a remarkable 95 per cent of respondents supported the suggestion that online marketplaces take financial responsibility for the packaging of (imported) products sold via their platforms. It seems very likely that similar changes for WEEE will meet with near universal support.
Disposable vapes are now widely regarded as a major problem for the waste industry, with research by Material Focus showing that at least 1 million are incorrectly disposed of every week - and that figure could be as high as 3-4 million. To treat vapes properly involves mechanical dismantling followed by separation of key constituents (and certainly not incineration of whole vapes). This is costly, and so a new category that ensures such costs are borne just by vape producers, would be welcomed by most other electrical equipment producers.