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What a waste: our study shows almost half of electricals sent for recycling could be reused

A member of the Restart team testing a discarded iron

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How many times have you brought something to a recycling centre, and ended up spotting something else in a skip that looks reusable?

Since the early days of Restart, we’ve witnessed missed opportunities with reusable and repairable products. And this over time prompted us to do more – for example helping to coordinate donations of reusable laptops to groups refurbishing them during lockdown; or establishing a UK computer reuse directory to help people find options to give unwanted products a new lease of life.

Most recently our Brent Fixing Factory, based in a Abbey Road reuse and recycling centre is rescuing laptops. Here we refurbish as many as possible of the laptops brought to the centre for recycling, then donate them to people in need, whilst training young people in repair and refurbishing techniques.

But we wanted to look at the other small electrical products that were being brought for recycling. So with support from West London Waste Authority we designed a “waste composition analysis” which we ran for one week at the end of March, testing all electrical products brought for recycling to establish their reusability potential.

We were shocked at what we found. We tested 599 products that members of the public brought to be recycled, and found that 36.2% of them – or 217 – had the potential to be immediately reused, while an additional 57 (9.5%) required only minor repairs. That’s almost half of the electricals headed for recycling that could have had a second life in the hands of someone who needed them.

The wasted potential of this is significant: The products that were still working amount to more than 700 kg of waste generated in one week at just one site. Reusing these devices instead of recycling them would have the potential to save almost 6 tonnes of CO2e, if they displaced purchases of new products, according to our methodology.

And if all of these products were resold, they could have a potential resale value of up to £5,000, based on sales in Tech-Takeback’s Revaluit store for second hand electronics in Brighton

We estimate that if replicated across the UK it could mean that over 30,000 perfectly reusable small electrical and electronic products are “wasted” in recycling skips at household waste and recycling centres – every week.

This was just a research project, and as such we couldn’t reuse the tested products. The first-hand experience of the wasted potential is a clear reminder of the urgent change we need.

We hope this research will help make the case for more investment into projects to salvage reusable products and give them a second life. Findings also highlight the need for policy change across the UK, and we’ll make them known in consultations scheduled later this year. It is worth highlighting that once a product is inserted into a bay at a recycling centre, it is deemed as waste for recycling. Therefore it is crucial that products with reuse potential are filtered out before they get collected and processed by contractors that waste authorities work with.

What kind of products end up wasted? 

We found that all kinds of working products end up in recycling bins: from printers to kettles, irons to radios, vacuum cleaners to mobile phones.

These are products that families in need should be able to access at low, or no cost rather than feeding the mountain of e-waste that organisations like Restart are trying to tackle.

The fact that we are prematurely losing potentially reusable electricals to recycling is nothing new. According to a 2011 WRAP study, 23% of all electricals collected or brought to household waste and recycling centres were either fit for reuse, or required only minor repairs before they could be resold. This work keeps getting quoted 12 years on, so we decided to replicate the research on a smaller scale. Unfortunately, with 45% of products we tested being reusable with only minor repairs our results suggest that things have got worse since 2011. This remains a sort of “hidden secret”, and our study has shown that it continues to be untackled.

The push to recycle

The system is evidently broken. We are told that we’re not recycling enough, and it’s true: the UK missed its target for recycling of electrical and electronic waste in 2022, yet again. But while there are definitely lots of products that should be recycled, there are many that shouldn’t be anywhere near the recycling bin, they should be living a longer, or a second life in the hands and the homes of people that can use them.

Campaigns and messaging focus on reminding us to recycle. Where are the regulations and communications campaigns encouraging us to keep our electricals in use? They’re few and far between, and that’s because there’s no incentive for actors in the system to put the effort into diverting products for reuse.

What needs to change

In parts of the UK, waste authorities and waste management companies are testing out ways to separate reusable items from waste. We visited one notable example in Manchester, the Renew Hub run by Suez. Such examples show that there’s a huge amount of potential in saving products for reuse.

At the moment these are voluntary initiatives. We call for filtering and diverting products for reuse to become mandatory. Every local authority, every waste authority, every waste management company operating in the UK should be required to prevent unnecessary waste, and to contribute to reuse efforts.

Based on our experience through this waste composition analysis, and the conversations our technicians had with members of the public bringing products to the site in Brent, we think that while signposting residents to other options is essential, it will never be enough to reach optimal reuse rates. Initiatives to act as the final ‘net’, catching the huge number of products still worth reusing, are needed at all household waste and recycling centres in the UK.

Who could the reusable products go to?

Some of the products that today end up unnecessarily in recycling bins have obvious financial value: an almost new printer, a coffee machine or a blender, for example. Not to mention the fully reusable ice machine that someone brought to the recycling centre, after an agreed sale on eBay for £600 didn’t work out. These could be directly sold by owners online, or donated to charities like British Heart Foundation, or start-ups like Brighton’s Tech-Takeback for resale.

Other products might not have an immediate monetary value, but could still be reused. Vacuum cleaners, toasters and kettles could for example be invaluable for families moving into assisted accommodation, or on low incomes.

Products requiring repairs could be fixed and redistributed in Fixing Factories. or donated to community repair initiatives for repair, such as repair cafes or Restarters groups.

How did we test the products

Our team of Restart repairers visually inspected the plug, lead and unit of all small electrical items brought to the site, PAT tested them for safety, then assessed their functionality. The Restarters then placed the products in one of six categories: Fully reusable; only external damage; economical repair, costly repair, end of life or unknown.

It is worth noting we were not able to test the functionality of a further 34% of items due to lack of power cables or linked products, so more comprehensive testing would be likely to identify an even higher proportion of products that could be reused by others with or without simple repair. And our research didn’t factor in 32 laptops that were brought that week to the same centre, as laptops are diverted for reuse systematically thanks to the work of our Fixing Factory.

A small study with big findings 

This was a small study which could have big implications. If reusable products are being recycled at the same scale across the country, the level of waste is a scandal. In a climate emergency and a cost of living crisis we simply cannot afford to waste working products at this scale.

11 responses

  1. john welwood

    this is so sad those that have a good job and income just buy new and mistakenly think they are getting security there are a lot of people have skills time and get pleasure from restoring items to use and people that can and are willing to use cannot get them

  2. MJ

    What sort of policy /regulatory changes are required from the authorities here?

    Are there some specific suggestions?

    The obvious one that needs a mention here is that i believe it is actually illegal to reclaim items that have been thrown away? ?

  3. I try to get all my electric and electronic items repaired. However, I often find nobody who is willing or able to diagnose the problem and repair an item. Another problem are poor services with poor quality repairs, because most businesses are more interested to sell new products.

  4. In Belgium the flemish tv VRT1 did a repairathon and could save 60% of the appliances from getting trashed.
    http://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=282928493944671

  5. Lynn whitehoue

    Looking to donate a printer, Acorn won’t take it. What do you advise?

    1. Ugo Vallauri

      Hi Lynn, we would recommend you donate it via your local Freegle group, or search if one of the groups in our directory convenient to you accepts printers: https://therestartproject.org/where-to-donate-your-computer/
      Alternatively, British Heart Foundation and Fara charity shops often accept electricals

  6. Each situation of repair vs replace varies. I often inform customers of the pros and cons of repair vs replace giving them the chance of making a decision they are happy with.

    For example desktop computers after 5 years may come in the costly route and with laptops the same is questioned after 3 years as the enquiries we get tend to be for cheaper items at the time of purchase.

    1. Ugo Vallauri

      Hi Baldeep, throwing away a laptop after 3 years is extremely problematic from an environmental perspective. Our research shows that 77% of all the enviromental impact of a laptop occurs in manufacturing, so the only way we can help is by extending their lifetime to at least 6 or 8 years: https://therestartproject.org/consumption/hidden-impact-devices/ I agree that part of the problem is some lower-quality products are sold at a low price point, but we should as much as possible try to prevent the premature replacement of these devices too (and discourage your customers from buying them again when replacing!)

  7. CL Cockburn

    There are many reasons that people don’t keep or donate tech items. In Central London most charities no longer collect items. Planned obsolescence doesn’t help.

    My 11 year old laptop can no longer cope, so I’ve got a refurbished one. I’d love to continue to use my viable my old printer, and have repeatedly tried to do this. The printer manufacturer, however, no longer produces an adapter for my current operating system.

    If you have no access to a vehicle and/or are disabled or infirm, it can be very difficult to donate old monitors, printers, and other larger items.

    1. Ugo Vallauri

      Well done for using your laptop for 11 years – that is more than the vast majority of people achieves! And we agree that the current system doesn’t make it accessible and easy to donate and reuse – the incentives are not in the right place, and that’s why we are demanding mandatory reuse and repair targets, so that prioritising reuse of recycling is incentivised. It’s one of the key pillars of the UK Repair and Reuse Declaration which we recently launched: https://repairreusedeclaration.uk/

  8. Sarah

    One problem that occurs to me is that many charity shops are thought to refuse electrical items on safety grounds – I don’t know if this is true or just a perception that many people have, but surely addressing this would help? If people could take their unwanted electrical items to a charity shop and other people knew they had a chance of finding an electrical item they needed at a charity shop, that must surely help reduce the amount of waste? Is there any way of getting charities with shops involved?

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