How can we achieve more transparency in the WEEE sector?

Written by: Jo Gallacher | Published:
Producer compliance schemes missed their WEEE collection targets by more than 15% in 2017

As our reliance on technology becomes more prevalent, so too does our propensity to throw devices away without considering what happens to our once-beloved iPhone or DVD player.

In October, the first ever International E-Waste Day was launched by Electrical Waste Recycling Group (EWRG) to raise public awareness of e-waste and the losses to the economy when these items, made from valuable materials, end up in landfill.

It’s a global problem which needs immediate attention, including in the UK, given last year producer compliance schemes (PCSs) missed their targets by more than 15%. One would assume this was down to a failure in the WEEE collection system, either by consumers or collectors, but this isn’t quite the case.

Although improvements are needed in the collection of e-waste, the disparity between targets and WEEE collected can be traced back to difficulties in initially setting the targets.

This was the problem set before compliance scheme REPIC when it commissioned the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business at Lancaster University to independently investigate and report on existing econometric models for post-consumer waste forecasting.

The report noted that forecasting targets was challenging for a series of reasons, including the varying durability of different devices, slim-lining of technology meaning there is less material to collect than when targets were initially set and the fact some products are hoarded for years while others are thrown away immediately.

Technology is progressing fast, and it can often be difficult for us to predict what trend will happen next. CDs were anticipated to herald the end of vinyl, yet sales of the vinyl records and accompanying players have rocketed over the past few years. Hipsters, hoarders and everyone in between are contributing to Defra’s WEEE headache, so how big is the problem?

“It’s a complex landscape, there are lots of things that influence what people buy and then throw away but the targets are staying the same regardless,” says REPIC external affairs manager Sarah Downes. “There’s a real gap forming; when sales of new electrical products drop, so does WEEE, but Defra’s electrical targets keep rising. Defra is taking into account the complexity, but there’s limitations to what you can do with the data available.”

Data deficiency

PCSs do a great job of tracking WEEE which is available for collection and recycling, but if someone chooses to reuse a product or it gets dealt with illegally, currently there is no data to manage that. An estimated 60% of the UK’s electrical waste is not reported through authorised treatment facilities demonstrating the need for accurate, traceable and convenient recycling routes.

Downes adds: “We need to try and get better data on the stuff that doesn’t come through the system; one of the key elements is being able to model what we expect to be generated as WEEE so we’ve got a good handle for the gap in WEEE collected.”

Lancaster University analysed lots of models before concluding that an amended version of the Dutch Waste Over Time (WOT) model, the most widely used modelling tool which estimates EEE products put on the market and WEEE generated, should be implemented.

The new prototype model mapped out in the report uses the basis of the WOT model but with more variables to develop new data and lead to more accurate target setting. These included socio-economic factors such as economic growth, recessions and average household size.

This, researchers hope, could help shine a light on both the unreported WEEE flows in second-hand markets, scrap recycling and residual waste and the varying product types, weight, design and lifespans.

The prototype model could also prevent waste crime, REPIC CEO Mark Burrows-Smith says. “In the UK, there’s a fractured WEEE dataset and it’s difficult to determine how electrical goods are being disposed of. Some routes are perfectly legal and traceable, while other routes sadly involve illegal activity.”

Not just the UK

As implied by the need for an “international” e-waste day, the problem is far from being a single-nation issue. Currently, only 41 countries currently collate computer recycling data. In 2014, the Basel Action Network (BAN) put GPS tracking devices in old hazardous electronic equipment including printers and computer monitors to see where they travelled across the globe. The results were concerning.

Instead of being recycled, 65 (32.5%) devices were exported overseas from America, most of them ending up in Asia where they were likely traded in violation of the laws of the importing countries. Of the 149 trackers delivered to recyclers, 39% were exported. The global waste watchdog group has repeated similar studies, with similar results.

This is problematic in three parts. It creates an added risk to public health due to toxins produced during the recovery process; a huge loss to the economy from the waste of valuable materials; and an intensified distrust among consumers who already suspect their waste isn’t being recycled.

Next steps

REPIC’s report is therefore a welcome contribution to the continuing issues around how to get more transparency in the WEEE sector. But where do we go from here?

Downes says: “We’ve funded this first phase of work which has basically been a scoping exercise to develop the prototype. We have reviewed all of the available data from key parts of the industry and identified a way forward in terms of improvement to gather better data. We have also made an app for funds to complete the model and improve data gathering.”

The impetus for the report was a desire from across the sector to solve the WEEE problem and now Downes is hoping for a large engagement. She says: “The biggest piece of work is going to be engaging the key players in the sectors, a lot of products are going through the charity reuse sector so we need to understand their numbers.”

Downes and the rest of the team are now speaking with those who handle secondhand EEE or WEEE, while also looking into how to collaborate with other projects to encourage faith in the WEEE system and future targets.

Defra will decide on required collection tonnages in March, and it’s hoped the research uncovered by the report, plus contributions, will help to set more aspirational yet achievable targets for the future and lead to a more circular economy.

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