WEEE report condemns high level of online free-riding

The European WEEE Registers Network (EWRN) this week released a report condemning online marketplaces for the high level of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) non-compliance of products sold on their platforms.

The EWRN is an independent network of governmental organisations, such as the Environment Agency (EA) in England, that maintain official registers of WEEE compliant companies across Europe.

WEEE report condemns high level of online free-ridingWEEE report condemns high level of online free-ridingIts report states that ‘online platforms are fully aware that most of their customers abroad are non-compliant’. All producers of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) in the EU are obligated under the WEEE Directive to declare how much EEE they place on the market, as well as to organise the collection and recycling of their products at the end of life stage, either directly or through a compliance scheme.

Online marketplaces are under scrutiny for what has been termed as ‘free-riding’, where e-commerce sites sell products directly to households in the EU from producers based outside of the EU to avoid producer responsibility obligations, including compliance fees.

The EWRN report cites an independent study in 2018 that found that 50-88 per cent of smaller electrical products, such as LED lightbulbs, fitness watches and electric screwdrivers, were not registered under WEEE regulations.

The Covid-19 pandemic will have exacerbated the issue further, with a significant shift towards online sales meaning the proportion of WEEE non-compliant products sold in the UK will have further increased, putting greater pressure on the WEEE system. The WEEE system is financed by contributions made by obligated producers, so a greater rate of non-compliance mean these producers will pay a higher cost to support the system.

The report also rejects the proposal made in 2019 by a larger online platform for a Flat Fee model of WEEE compliance, where online platforms would act as an intermediate for obligated producers abroad, with neither having to register in EU member states where EEE is placed on the market, providing annual reports in bulk of all the EEE they place on the market rather than individually for each producer.

The EWRN report states that the Flat Fee model would create a ‘double standard that is not justifiable’, meaning obligated producers that are compliant would be at a disadvantage to producers behind an online platform with no obligations for WEEE take-back or individual reporting, which would prevent proper enforcement for non-compliance.

It also rejects claims by online marketplaces that WEEE compliance is too complicated for small businesses, noting that ‘around about 70-80 per cent of the [WEEE] registered producers… are SMES and established in the EU’.

Welcoming the report, CEO of lighting compliance scheme Recolight Nigel Harvey, said “It is really encouraging to see the EWRN take such a strong stand against WEEE free-riding through online marketplaces. There is now, more than ever, an urgent need for Defra to tackle the non-compliance of product sold through online marketplaces.”

Harvey added: “Defra published an ideal solution to the problem in their waste packaging consultation last year. Online marketplaces were to be regarded as the producer of all products for which they facilitate the import into the UK. Implementing that simple measure would, at a stroke, resolve most of the problems. It cannot happen soon enough.”

The issue of online free-riding has come under increased scrutiny in recent years. A 2018 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) urged governments to take serious action to tackle free-riding, although the fact that the sales are conducted online and across borders makes it more difficult to enforce compliance.

In January 2019, the French Government introduced new rules obligating online marketplaces to ensure that the collection and recycling of all products sold through their platforms have been properly financed.

It has also been announced that a new EU regulation will be implemented in 2021 stipulating that all online retailers must take responsibility for ensuring compliance documentation for WEEE is verified by an economic operator within the EU.

You can read the EWRN report in full on the EWRN website.

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