WEEE: The only constant is change
Robbie Staniforth, Head of Policy at compliance scheme Ecosurety, looks at the changing factors affecting WEEE collection targets
The government’s Resources and Waste Strategy was released to much fanfare over its ambitions to reduce plastic use and to reform the various systems that make packaging producers responsible for recycling. Indeed, not much of significance has changed in packaging regulation since the late 1990s. However, the same cannot be said of the WEEE regulations.
This year, the EU’s ‘open scope’ system comes into force meaning that nearly all electrical products are captured in the system. This significant change means that even wiring accessories, like plugs and sockets, will now be reported (and hopefully recycled). The desire to ensure that producers are held responsible for the products they create is clear, but it makes the task of setting WEEE targets for 2019 even more difficult for the UK than in years past.
The regulatory system changed in 2013 from a 100 per cent market-based system for WEEE evidence, where every tonne of waste had a value, to a target-based system. This means that every year the government must wrestle with what collection target to set for each of the 14 reporting categories. It will not only need to be mindful of the complexities caused by these new ‘open scope’ products but also be careful not to repeat the consequences of the targets set in 2017 that led to an extraordinary compliance fee fund of nearly £8 million – ten times larger than it had ever been before.
Furthermore, recent research shows that younger generations are much more likely to trade-in or sell their old electricals online than recycle them. Perhaps no surprises there but, while the second-use market should be encouraged, it doesn’t make the system of accounting for (or defining) our waste any easier. The government is rightly considering making producers disclose product lifetimes and warranties to increase longevity, but this may in fact further complicate the issue.
This year the EU recycling target for EEE sold is 65 per cent. As the UK intends to meet this target, it is highly likely that substantiated estimates will need to be used to account for all of the WEEE material that flows outside of the UK’s accounting system. However, on the upside, the target may also mean that WEEE that is currently considered to be surplus to requirements, like that which flows through the Producer Compliance Scheme Balancing System (PBS), becomes, well, required!
The PBS is due to become mandatory for all Producer Compliance Schemes (PCSs) this year. Unfortunately, due to the legislation that needs to be passed to enact this, it was not possible for these obligations to start at the beginning of the year. Therefore, the majority of PCSs will continue to voluntarily collect WEEE from household waste recycling facilities until the new system is in place.
One tactic would be to target certain categories that have historically under-performed. White goods, consumer equipment and IT/telecom hardware are all well- recycled due to the material value. However, toys, leisure equipment, medical devices and other small equipment, with a low intrinsic material value have only ever had a low collection rate in the UK.
It will be interesting to see how the targets are set this year, given these moving parts. However, the much more interesting issue, which is not currently being discussed, is: how can WEEE recycling and reuse markets be stimulated in the much longer-term?
Just like packaging, the annual cycle must be broken if long-term investment is to be encouraged. Setting long-term demand with targets into the future is the simple answer, but as with setting the 2019 targets, the reality is not so straightforward.