Electric avenues

Written by: Mark Burrows-Smith | Published:

REPIC’s Mark Burrows-Smith looks at some of the potential challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the WEEE industry, both in the UK and in Europe, against the background of Brexit

EU legislation, and at times very buoyant commodity markets and low shipping rates, have been key drivers behind the UK’s rapid progress on sustainable resource and waste management over the past two decades. It is therefore not surprising that the whole sector is feeling a little uncertain as to where business goes from here.

Two years after triggering Article 50 is a long time, and there are some significant lumps of EU legislation, such as the Circular Economy Package, that may be adopted into UK law before we leave.

As ever, business carries on, but there are some indications that new legislation will bring some important changes to the UK waste industry. Expectations at this stage include a wider definition of municipal waste, from the current narrow household waste definition, and the prospect of much enhanced producer responsibilities.

Extended producer responsibility

The Circular Economy Package and with it extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a well-trodden path in EU policy terms. The trick is not in understanding the concept, but in developing a means of practical implementation.

Any EPR system must adequately assign control to those classed as producers, as producers cannot be expected to deliver outcomes, or fund activities, which are outside their scope of influence. It is unreasonable to make producers responsible for meeting targets and assuming responsibility for the cost of any activities, such as collection and treatment, that they have not contracted or which sit outside of their operational control or legal jurisdiction. This increasingly looks like producers will take a more active role in fulfilling their obligations.

Furthermore, producers must not be put in a position to pay either for the ability to access collected waste, nor to fund costs which they cannot negotiate in an open and competitive market. Under EPR, creating value from significant amounts of materials, irrespective of their starting value, will become the norm for a good number of producing industries as they fund or subsidise the recycling of post-consumer goods.Commercially, commodity markets will be key; the better the return from material sales, the less subsidy that is required. This is a tough nut to crack, however, when commodity cycles are a constant feature and quality demands are rapidly changing.

Working with Europe

Despite leaving the EU, we cannot ignore changes and developments across the Channel, given many of our scheme members are pan-European (and global) brands.

Although the existing EU Directive on WEEE is common, each member state, including the UK, has been able to transpose the Directive in its own way; the rules and regulations regarding the registration and reporting of electrical equipment put on the market are inconsistent across the Continent.

This means that producers and other market players with Europe-wide reach face a complicated and time-consuming task when dealing with the administrative requirements of EEE and WEEE.

As part of REPIC’s shareholding in WEEE Europe and partnership with the WEEE Forum, we will continue to offer advice, support and, where needed, a Europe-wide WEEE compliance network.

WEEE Europe exists to provide pan-European producers, big and small, with a one-stop shop for Europe-wide WEEE compliance. The real strength is that each of the national schemes that are part of WEEE Europe remains totally independent, offering the same high quality of service as they do now.

Waste crime

Keeping WEEE in the system is an issue faced by the industry, and even with recent prosecution cases coming to light, continues to remain a sector challenge. Producers and retailers sell whole products and it would not be unreasonable to expect the return of whole products, fair wear and tear excepted, for responsible and legitimate recycling.

There is clear evidence to suggest that the more WEEE that is captured, treated properly and counted, the better a country performs in achieving targets. It means less is landfilled or illegally exported, and critical raw materials can be recovered and recycled. The environment is also better protected, and fewer people in developing countries are exposed to unnecessary risks from poor processes and environmentally unsound recovery practices.

However, this doesn’t always happen. The harvesting of components is rife and frequently damages the integrity of the product. This affects the environment, through pollution events such as oil leakage, and increases the amount of subsidy required in dealing with ‘waste’ due to its less inherent value.

Across Europe, there is an ever-increasing concern at the illegal practice of exporting used electrical goods to West African or Asian countries to save costs for recycling. As such, only about a third of European WEEE is captured in official channels, equating to six million tonnes or more of WEEE that is not currently being properly counted, treated and reported.

Back at home

2017 looks set to be another year of transition in the WEEE sector. The overall collection target for 2016 was set at just under 545,000 tonnes; a circa seven per cent increase on the 2015 target. Any day now, Defra is expected to release the actual collection figures for 2016 and the resultant implications for the 2017 target. In particular, close attention will be paid to the collection data by category to see if Defra’s ambitious targets in some categories have been met and, if any, where the shortfall lies.

From 2019 the challenge increases further and the WEEE target becomes either 65% of EEE put on the market, or 85% of WEEE generated. Although the targets are achievable, there is undoubtedly work to be done to keep things on track.

Rather than use EEE put on the market as a benchmark, many stakeholders are pressing for a far more intelligent means of representation: if instead the focus were on WEEE generated, the UK could feel more confident in achieving the challenge ahead.

With foresight, the new WEEE Directive recognised that some WEEE is currently being properly treated, but not counted. In view of this, member states are now able to count WEEE passing through these complementary WEEE routes using “substantiated estimates” to meet their target.

These substantiated estimates logically play a part in new EEE tonnage put on the market, too. Whenever EEE is initially placed on the UK market, its weight is recorded, but some is subsequently exported but not necessarily deducted; the result being that the percentage target for WEEE to be collected is based on an inaccurate figure.

On the other side, the exported EEE is then counted a second time on the imported market. It is likely that every member state overstates the EEE placed on its own market. In future, this needs taking into account or we will all be chasing WEEE from EEE that isn’t there.

There is nothing particularly new in these challenges; the risks and rewards around recycling will continue to drive innovation, but the structures and processes that deliver the desired outcomes, both legislative and commercial, look set to change.

Undoubtedly interesting times lie ahead and, as always, REPIC is looking forward to playing an active role in the important conversations about the future of the UK and European WEEE industry.

Mark Burrows-Smith is CEO of the UK-based not-for-profit WEEE producer compliance scheme REPIC

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