Why EPR for waste electronics must accommodate trends and innovations

waste electronics

Graeme Milne, Chief Executive of REPIC, explains why extended producer responsibility for WEEE needs to be sufficiently agile to accommodate technological trends and innovations.

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is the fastest growing solid waste stream in the world, increasing three times faster than the world’s population.

This mirrors the growth in new product development driven by our reliance – in both our business and personal lives, on technology – its functionality, and the opportunities it can provide.

Looking back to look forward

Graeme Milne, Chief Executive of REPIC.

As REPIC marks its 20th anniversary as a leading producer compliance scheme, and with the review of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for WEEE underway, it’s a pertinent time to reflect on the whole system.

By examining the events that have occurred over the past two decades, we have identified key factors that have influenced both the amount of electronics placed on the market and the WEEE collected.

Through sharing these insights, we hope to inform future policy and enhance the UK’s WEEE system.

Current WEEE regulations

Electronics Recycling

Since the introduction of the WEEE Directive in 2007, regulations have long focused on producer responsibility as the key policy mechanism for ensuring that producers continue to bear the costs of collection, sorting or treatment, and recycling or recovery.

Whilst producers must bear the responsibility for the full life cycle of the products they put on the market, it is recognised in policy terms that they should have some flexibility and discretion available to them in how they can fulfil this responsibility.

In 2014, new WEEE Regulations came into effect that established a system of household WEEE collection targets for Producer Compliance Schemes (PCSs), which until 2020 were broadly based upon the overall amount of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market in the preceding three years and category specific circumstances.

Despite the general upward trend in electronics placed on the market, and increases in targets, most notably in 2017, the amount of WEEE made available for collection has not increased.

Insights for future policy development

Figure One: Household electrical and electronic equipment placed on the Market vs WEEE collected.

What the graph (Figure One) doesn’t show is the events that have influenced both electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market and WEEE collected during that period. These can often be outside the control of producers.

In the past 20 years, a combination of factors, such as those illustrated in Figure 2, have affected what has been placed on the market and the total weight of electronics placed on the market each year has fluctuated by around 450,000 tonnes.

Figure Two: Factors that have influenced the total weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market in past 20 years.

Influencing factors

There is no denying that WEEE is very different to many other waste streams, in that the amount of electronics placed on the market in a year does not necessarily influence the amount arising as waste in that year. There is a significant gap between the two sets of figures, but this does not mean that the WEEE system is unsuccessful.

Over the past 20 years, we have identified three primary influences on WEEE collections: changing consumer habits and behaviours, improvements in collection infrastructure, and various technological advancements.

By examining these key factors, we begin to understand why the WEEE system, more than any other waste stream, requires flexibility at its core.

Consumer awareness

ElectronicsVarious initiatives aimed at educating the public about the importance of recycling electronic waste have played a crucial role in driving WEEE collection rates.

Since 2020, Material Focus’ “Recycle Your Electricals” behaviour change campaign has sought to encourage people to reuse and recycle unwanted electricals, ensuring the valuable materials inside them are recovered.

Building on the success of past campaigns, future efforts should aim to further engage consumers and promote responsible recycling behaviours.

Improving collection infrastructure

Although hampered by COVID-19 restrictions, expanding collection points to include retail stores and doorstep collections on delivery has made it easier for consumers to dispose of end-of-life electrical products responsibly.

Further communication around these convenient drop-off points is now needed as they have the potential to play a pivotal role in enhancing the effectiveness of the WEEE system.

Technological advancements

Electronics

Various rapid technological advancements have also influenced WEEE collections over the past 20 years, these include:

Shift to digital TV and flat panel TVs

The digital switchover in the late 2000s and the subsequent transition to flat-screen TVs significantly impacted WEEE collection rates. This technological change led to a surge in the disposal of old CRT televisions as consumers upgraded to new models.

New product markets

Photovoltaic (PV) panels have recently come into the scope of WEEE regulations. Although PV panels are still in a growth phase and have a lifespan of 40 years, their inclusion in the WEEE systems marks a positive approach to managing future electrical waste.

Product convergence and miniaturisation

The convergence and miniaturisation of products have also influenced WEEE trends, with modern smartphones now combining the functionalities of cameras, music players, GPS devices, and much more.

This trend reduces the number of individual products in circulation, potentially decreasing the overall volume of WEEE. However, it also means that when these multifunctional devices reach end-of-life, it is essential that they are recycled as they contain a high concentration of valuable materials.

The introduction of smart and cordless technology

Developments in smart and cordless technology have revolutionised many aspects of daily life, from smart homes to wearable devices. This proliferation of interconnected and cord-free devices has led to a more complex WEEE landscape and increased the number of batteries on the market.

Smart technology often includes advanced materials and components, such as sensors and processors which require specialised recycling processes. Addressing these challenges requires continuous adaptation of recycling infrastructure and enhanced collection and recycling efforts to manage these materials responsibly.

The arrival of vapes

disposable vapes

More recently, vapes, as a new electrical product, have added an unprecedented element to the WEEE stream due to their short lifespan.

Unlike traditional electronics that may be used for several years, vapes often have a significantly shorter usage period, especially disposable vapes, which may be disposed of on the same day they are bought.

This rapid turnover results in a high frequency of disposal, contributing to a substantial and continuous flow of WEEE.

Currently, disposable vapes are categorised under Category 7, Toys, Sport & Leisure, which means that other producers risk bearing their end-of-life disposal cost. Managing the influx of both disposable and reusable vapes requires targeted collection and recycling strategies to efficiently handle this unique and growing segment of electronic waste.

To ensure an adequate collection and treatment infrastructure is established, and other producers do not unfairly bear the costs associated with these products, a separate category for vapes must be established as soon as possible, as put forward within the recent WEEE consultation.

Going forward, we would ask the government to consider if there is a way to establish separate categories for such products, without the requirement to go through regulatory change.

Flexibility is the key to success

Reflecting on the past 20 years of the WEEE systems provides valuable insight into the factors that have shaped its development.

Strengthening EPR frameworks with the flexibility to adapt to technological changes and innovations will be a crucial step towards a more sustainable future for electrical waste management in the UK.

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