The government consultation on reforming the WEEE regulations is expected to be released before the middle of this year. The Resources and Waste Strategy, released in 2018, stated that the purpose of the reforms will be to “incentivise more sustainable product design, increase recycling and ensure alignment with the wider Extended Producer Responsibility framework.”.
With the last consultation process and regulatory change back in 2013, this reform has been a long time coming, not least because it has been frequently highlighted that systemic issues need to be addressed. A culmination of these existing issues point to a system-wide disparity of low collection rates coupled with increasingly high placed-on-market (POM) data.
If we look at the national figures from 2019 for example, they estimate that 42% of WEEE was treated through official producer responsibility channels, 34% was treated but not reported and the remaining 24% was disposed in landfill.
Here we consider the pertinent issues and how we might expect to see them presented in the upcoming consultation process.
Disposal and hoarding of WEEE
There is a problem surrounding household WEEE items being disposed into landfill. A sizeable tonnage currently enters the residual waste stream, due to consumers either not being aware of how to recycle their old electronics, or it being too inconvenient to.
It is probable that a key focus in the consultations will be on increasing convenient collections to tackle this, for both B2C and B2B consumers. For context, 19 Member States in the EU provide free-of-charge collection of WEEE through EPR, so there is precedence for the UK to do the same. In the consumer arena, although retailers are to an extent obliged to take back old electricals, an expansion of this (such as free take-back on delivery) will likely be scoped.
Hoarding is also a well-documented issue for B2C products. Consumers are likely to keep their old electronics for a long time, in part due to data protection concerns. However, the longer a WEEE item is stored the lower its residual value becomes, as does the likelihood of it being re-used. This may well be tackled by increased collections as above, but should similarly be discussed in relation to better and more visible consumer awareness campaigns.
Clarity of data
Known as ‘leakage’ from the WEEE recycling system, used EEE and re-use networks are undoubtedly a positive contributor toward a more circular economy. However, these activities are ungoverned in the current system and are therefore an unknown quantity within WEEE flow figures, further skewing data.
Similarly, exporting of WEEE or used EEE, both legally and illegally, has been criticised as being unquantified and somewhat unregulated. To reduce leakage and to improve transparency, improved governance and enforcement, alongside better reporting, is expected to feature in upcoming regulatory reform proposals.
Another issue arises if a WEEE item is given to an Approved Treatment Facility (ATF), by a householder or business owner. It is then categorized as unobligated waste as it has not been collected via a compliance scheme and treated by an Approved Authorised Treatment Facility (AATF), which is authorised to issue evidence on it and report it into the system. WEEE treated by an ATF is therefore unreported. Improved and more visible access to the producer responsibility system could reverse this, and how this can be achieved will likely feature highly in the consultations.
Tackling free-riders effectively
‘Free-riding’, particularly by online-sellers, leads to inaccurate POM data which in turn reduces both the national recycling obligation and, indirectly, the total WEEE recycled.
Increasing regulation and enforcement of e-retailers and online selling platforms will undoubtedly be present in the consultations, particularly considering increased online sales in the last year. Free-riding generally is an issue that needs to be tackled by increased enforcement and governance, for successful EPR.
Head of Policy, Robbie Staniforth, commented on the future of WEEE policy reform “While the current regulations have been successful in putting e-waste recycling onto a more formal footing, further improvements will not be possible without significant upgrades to the law. The next phase of producer responsibility must look beyond recycling towards improving the lifecycle of equipment.”
“Promoting new business models that allow producers to take greater direct responsibility for the equipment they sell should be a top priority alongside engaging citizens to understand the consumption actions they should take.”
As always we will update our members on future consultations and legislative reform. In the meantime, if you have any questions about future WEEE producer responsibility, please contact our team.