The best features in recycling
Next year it will have been a decade since the WEEE Directive was enshrined into UK law. Its first 10 years have certainly proved something of a bumpy ride, one that featured a long period of consultation before the implementation of a controversial framework for producer responsibility that divided producers and industry bodies alike.
That framework obliges all producers of electrical goods to join a producer compliance scheme, which then has to buy back an amount of WEEE equal to the market share of its members. There is also an internal market whereby schemes can trade evidence notes, which has led to criticisms from some stakeholders that the system is inefficient and complaints about occasional leakages from the system. Some of these glitches have since been addressed. Every compliance scheme now has to adhere to a ‘balanced operational plan’, which prevents the hoarding and over collection of WEEE that was a feature of the system’s early years.
In the meantime, the EU has announced a ‘recast’ of the legislation and increased targets for member states. From 2016 the UK will have to collect WEEE totalling 45 per cent of the proportion of electrical goods placed onto the market over the three preceding years, a target that will rise to 65 per cent by 2019.
When the UK launched the current system in 2007, some observers doubted whether it would be able to deliver on meeting its targets. In fact, the UK has not done badly. In 2011, the total of collected WEEE in the UK passed the 500,000 tonnes mark, or 34 per cent of the amount of electrical goods placed on to the market, an increase from 31 per cent in 2010.
“The UK tends to be towards the upper end of the middle of the table, so to speak”, says Scott Butler, Managing Director of the compliance scheme ERP. “The biggest issue with the UK system remains the relationship between those who are responsible and the access to the waste they’re responsible for. This whole evidence trading issue means that there is too much of a disconnect between those who are responsible and those who manage the waste.”
Few producers seem positive about the current compliance system. Apart from inefficiencies and leakages, it stands accused of inflating prices (which then usually end up being passed on to the consumer). A recent report commissioned by Hewlett Packard revealed that UK businesses could save up to £50 million if regulations were changed and suggested moving to an ‘allocation’ system similar to the German one that gives producers direct control of collection and treatment of WEEE.
Dr Philip Morton, Chief Executive of the UK’s largest compliance scheme REPIC, has long been a critic of the current system and is confident that the government will take the opportunity afforded by the recast to make further changes. “It’s come out of the recent Red Tape Challenge that the government has carried out, but I think there is now a recognition that the WEEE system has an inherent problem which is described as this ‘must-buy’ market. It isn’t a good functioning structure, because you can effectively charge whatever you like. And it isn’t a free market. But producers have now told BIS and BIS has concluded that the producers are overpaying for their compliance costs.”
Yet despite this, UK collection figures have kept rising, in particular for small WEEE – 31,300 tonnes in 2011 (or 21 per cent of the EEE placed onto the market), a significant rise from 24,000 tonnes in 2010 (or 16 per cent). A major factor in this success has been various stakeholders upping their public awareness game. Retailers like Curry’s have put in place take-back schemes and many local authorities are now going the extra mile in terms of education.
Cheshire East is just one council that has made strides in this direction by installing a number of specific WEEE collection sites at local supermarkets and launching a ‘Bring It, Don’t Bin It’ campaign. “We run these roadshows that go to a number of sites like supermarkets”, explains Cheshire East Cabinet Member for the Environment, Rod Menlove. “The idea is to publicise that you can recycle small electrics by taking them to one of our nine household waste recycling centres. We also do a lot of work in schools, where we ask the children to sticker items of WEEE that can be recycled – anything that furthers their families’ awareness.
“It’s a way of trying to capture their imagination. We know it doesn’t have an immediate impact we can measure but it’s the sort of background hum that is necessary because you’re building that up for the future.”
Whilst the increase in small WEEE collection is heading in the right direction, of more concern is the continued lack of progress on reuse – less than five per cent of end-of-life WEEE items are currently reused. Morton suggests the problem isn’t targets but a lack of markets. “If you say you have to reuse 10 per cent of all the laptops that come back and someone refurbishes them all, but then no one actually wants to buy [them], then what are you going to do with them? I think the trick is that you have to stimulate the demand for reused products and pull reuse through that way.”
Reuse is an important issue, because lurking in the background are concerns over resource scarcity. WEEE items contain precious metals, as well as a number of rare earth minerals – iridium, gallium, and so on – the supplies of which may well dry up or at least become more expensive in decades to come. WRAP has conducted research that suggests that a quarter of all WEEE taken to household recycling centres has a reuse value, which would make 100 tonnes of rare earths (or 10 per cent of total UK demand) available each year. With this in mind, should the recast have placed more emphasis on reuse?
“I think it’s difficult for any regulations to future-proof themselves”, says Butler. “The recast has a pretty tight scope to look at the directive again. I don’t think it really touches upon these concerns, but then I don’t think it was supposed to either. It’s broader electronics isn’t it? These are important issues that bring in many more industrial sectors than just the existing electronic and electrical equipment producers.”
Perhaps it’s a question for the long term. In the medium term, the UK has to work out a way to reach the new EU targets. Philip Morton is one observer who suggests that since so much e-waste comes back through other means, the official figures actually underestimate the true amount of WEEE that is collected. “Every year in the UK consumers buy about half a million tonnes of white goods. Only a third of those are captured in the official system. There’s another 200,000 tonnes of white goods that are probably going through acceptable systems of scrap recovery and recycling. If we count those you’re suddenly getting up to 60 per cent.
“So I don’t think we necessarily need to drastically overhaul WEEE collection and recycling”, he maintains. “I think we improve what we can of what already happens. I would say that the initial target of 45 per cent looks quite achievable.”
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