WEEE: Reuse versus recycle

Teresa Arbuckle, Chair of the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances (AMDEA), weighs up how reuse and recycling of WEEE affects collection targets

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has announced a 12 per cent increase in UK waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collection targets for 2019. However, this target is challenging, given that reported WEEE collections have fallen over the last two years.

Teresa Arbuckle, Chair of the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances (AMDEA)
Teresa Arbuckle

As producers, we are absolutely committed to playing our part in the collection and reprocessing of WEEE. However, we can only collect and process the WEEE that consumers make available to us. The disparity between WEEE made available for collection and the UK targets has continued, and it is clear that increasing the Producer Compliance Scheme (PCS) target does not automatically increase the amount of WEEE collected.

We need a greater understanding of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) and WEEE flows to help set accurate WEEE targets and policy.

There is so much we do not understand about the use of EEE. For example, at what point in a product’s lifespan is it better to extend its use, reuse it or recycle? Why are consumers buying fewer electrical products?

And what does this mean in a circular economy and for extended producer  responsibility (EPR), particularly in the context of target setting?

Many WEEE flows are influenced by changing consumer behaviours, purchasing patterns and product lifespan. Today’s large electrical goods are longer-lasting and more efficient than ever and, as a result, UK consumers are buying fewer of them.

The increased lifespan of products has not only had an impact on purchasing trends, but also on the disposal of items. Some unwanted but working products are being recycled as WEEE, but many are being retained by households, with consumers often having multiples of EEE such as TVs, laptops and fridges.

In fact, independent research commissioned by BEKO revealed that 13 per cent of households purchasing a fridge/freezer had done so as an additional appliance and that up to
25 per cent of those purchasing a new product did not dispose of the old product. New build is believed to account for around 10 per cent of the current market and therefore, only around 65 per cent of new refrigeration products sold result in an old product entering the WEEE stream.

AMDEA research has shown that some households have four or more refrigeration appliances and evidence suggests that retaining multiple products or even hoarding them is on the rise. However, current levels of multiple ownership are not recorded so it isn’t possible to assess how this might be contributing to WEEE not arising at local authority sites.

This article was taken from Issue 96

While prolonging product residence times is preventing WEEE arising, finding legitimate second, third or multiple life uses for unwanted electrical items contributes to  the circular economy and is to be encouraged. There is also a balance to be struck when considering reuse and repair versus recycling to ensure the optimal environmental outcomes: is it desirable to keep an older product in use if it is using more energy and water than modern replacements? Or does it make more sense to recycle the inefficient equipment, freeing up its valuable materials for recycling to offset virgin material use?

The impact of consumer behaviour on WEEE generation and the potential for collection must be taken into account when setting targets and the compliance fee.

When it comes to developing the circular economy and using EPR as a lever, intelligence and robust data on the use and flow of EEE and WEEE are key, enabling better policy-making, as well as targets that drive the right behaviours from all actors and avoid unintended consequences.

In addition, greater information on EEE and WEEE flows can be used to identify the reuse versus recycle tipping point, in order to educate and incentivise consumers to use products for their optimal working life and then recycle products responsibly.

It is encouraging that the fund created through the WEEE compliance fee mechanism will be used to deliver research in these vital areas, and we look forward to working with stakeholders to provide data-driven insights on EEE and WEEE flows.