The missing link: Addressing the WEEE and EEE data gap

Written by: Mark Burrows-Smith | Published:
Mark Burrows-Smith

Producer compliance scheme (PCS) WEEE collection targets have an essential role in contributing to key objectives outlined in the government’s resources and waste strategy – maximising the value of resource use and minimising waste and its impact on the environment.

However, the PCS collection targets have not been met in the last two years, and it has become evident that solely increasing targets does not automatically drive an increase in the tonnage of WEEE collected from society.

This year the collection targets have increased from 45% to 65%, effectively meaning that on a weight basis, WEEE equivalent to 65 out of 100 electrical items bought needs to be collected through the regulated system.

This trend is clear in the WEEE collection figures for Q2 and Q3 2019. For instance, this year the target for small household appliances increased overall by 49%, but only 33% of the collection target tonnage was collected in the first six months – suggesting that these products at end of life are likely to have flows away from the official WEEE system.

There are many factors affecting the amount of WEEE that is collected each year. Setting ambitious targets which deliver behavioural change and support the waste hierarchy requires significantly more data and market intelligence than has been readily available.

Filling the data gap

The relationship between EEE ‘Put on the Market’ (POM) and WEEE arising for collection is not uniform. Larger household appliances are more likely to be bought and discarded on a one:one basis but there is significant evidence of hoarding of large and small appliances alike.

How many of us have a few old mobile phones ‘just in case’, or an old TV, laptop, or kitchen appliance in the garage or attic? Establishing the timeline between the original purchase of EEE and when it is captured – or not – as WEEE is complex.

There are four key flows which need to be considered: what happens to EEE through its lifecycle (when it is bought, reused, stored, hoarded, or resold); how WEEE and used EEE is collected; how it is disposed of (including reused, treated, recycled, incinerated, landfilled, and illegal flows); and identifying EEE and WEEE which is not being properly accounted for.

Understanding these flows can support policy measures which would encourage the right behaviour and highlight the potential WEEE that is available for recycling.

It would also enable reporting of economic and environmentally beneficial flows operating outside the current system, which could contribute towards substantiated estimates, and – where necessary – address illegal activities through enforcement.

Supporting progress to a circular economy

Qualitative and quantitative research on EEE product life flows is an absolute necessity to enable the industry, consumers, and government to maximise the value of resource use while minimising the generation of waste and its environmental impact.

Finding legitimate second, third, or multiple life uses for unwanted but perfectly functioning electrical items supports the circular economy and should be encouraged.

But the effect on WEEE generated needs to be taken into account when setting targets and the compliance fee.

While prolonging the life of products can help to maximise resource efficiency, there is also a balance to be struck between reuse and repair versus recycling.

Helping people to ‘do the right thing’

One of the government’s five strategic principles outlined in the resources and waste strategy is to ensure incentives, infrastructure, information, and skills are in place for people to ‘do the right thing’.

This is another example of where improved data on what consumers are doing with their used, broken or unwanted products and the motivations for their behaviour can help the e-waste industry deliver on government objectives.

A strong evidence base on EEE and WEEE flows could be used to identify the reuse versus recycling ‘sweet spot’ – when and where to best reach consumers with education and incentives to encourage maximum resource efficiency and responsible recycling.

Looking to the future

Essentially all e-waste stakeholders are working towards the same outcome – an effective system for the management, disposal, and recycling of WEEE. A system where ‘good’ behaviours such as repair and reuse and recycling are encouraged and facilitated.

To achieve this, improved mapping of detailed WEEE and EEE flows is essential.

The complex and varied routes taken by used EEE products needs to be considered in both setting targets and considering what can legitimately be used to report against them.

It’s encouraging to see that the WEEE Fund is progressing with technical research to deliver insights on unreported EEE and WEEE flows. The analysis and synthesis of this data aims to perform a comprehensive WEEE flow assessment, support more accurate substantiated estimates for target-setting, and identify priority areas for further research.

Data and intelligence are improving all of the time. Together, we can work towards a solution that delivers the best outcomes for the industry, the public and the environment.

Learn more about how EEE and WEEE flows impact on existing reported collections, the fate of used and discarded products, and the potential WEEE available for reuse and recycling. Download the first report in REPIC’s Industry Insight Series – Understanding WEEE and EEE flows to support implementation of policy objectives – by visiting https://repic-weee-insights.co.uk.

Mark Burrows-Smith is chief executive at REPIC


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