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The UK’s shocking e-waste problem can be fixed with more reuse and repair

This post is by Fiona Dear, originally posted on the Green Alliance blog.

The UK is currently the world’s second top producer of electrical waste per person.1

That fact tends to surprise people, but more surprising is that, until recently, very little was being done about it. For those interested in tackling the UK’s e-waste it’s been a bit like waiting for the proverbial bus: we wait years for any substantial policy opportunities, and then two come along at once.

First, for the past few months we’ve been working with Peers for the Planet, Green Alliance and the Design Council to support a right to repair amendment to the Digital Markets Bill, tabled by Baroness Hayman. Consumer rights aspects of Right to Repair legislation ensure that we can all get the support we need from producers to keep our electrical products going for longer. It was unfortunately withdrawn at the report stage last week, but the work already done unearthed strong cross party support for right to repair in principle and it has given us something to build on.

The opportunity more people will have heard of is the recent consultation on reforming what happens to waste electrical and electronic equipment (known as WEEE). The last time the WEEE system was reformed was a decade ago and we’ve been waiting three years for this one, so it was a big deal.

Government’s focus remains firmly on recycling

The proposals the consultation focused on were around getting more waste electricals out of people’s drawers, cupboards and household bins, and into the recycling stream. Headline measures that will make it easier to put our waste electricals in the right place include kerbside collections of e-waste and mandatory producer and retailer – including online – take back schemes.

The chances are, you’ll have heard of the retailer take back proposal under the misleading moniker: the ‘toaster tax’. The British Retail Consortium has been in uproar about retailers of a certain size having to take back any electrical product, whether they’ve just sold a new one or not. The argument is that this cost will be passed onto consumers and will equate to a £1 billion tax. The problem with this argument is who should pay for it then? The point of extended producer responsibility regulations is that the environmental costs of the stuff we use are captured in the market price. If those costs are not shouldered by those producing or making money from selling the product or by those buying it, who should pay for it instead? The taxpayer, or maybe Defra, the government agency responsible for our environment? It obviously doesn’t make sense to downplay the environmental cost of electricals that we are replacing ever more frequently, as the consequences of our throwaway economy will have to be picked up by someone eventually and, if not us, it will be future generations or other countries.

Restart agrees it should be easier for people to pass on their electrical products in a way that makes the best use of the resources inside them, and that producers and retailers should absorb that cost. Does that mean we love these new proposals? Not exactly. We argue they should go further.

This is a once in a decade opportunity

It’s well established that prioritising repair, reduction and reuse wastes fewer resources and reduces carbon emissions. So, rather than tinkering with a waste system that revolves around recycling, we should use this moment to embrace a truly circular economy, centred on repair and reuse, and the reduction of the amount of e-waste we produce in the first place.

It won’t be easy. It requires an overhaul of how things are done. But, 30 years ago, we didn’t know how to recycle at scale. The recycling regulations we have aren’t perfect — we’re still not meeting our recycling targets for instance – but they have created the conditions for a huge recycling industry to spring up.

If Defra could create the right conditions, we could be looking back in 30 years and seeing now as the moment when reuse and repair were revived.

The call for evidence that accompanied the WEEE consultation started to do this. We were encouraged to see some policies we’re calling for in our repair and reuse declaration being explored. Such as reuse targets that would reward waste processors for reusing or reselling products more than for recycling them. We found out last year that almost half of the small waste electricals sent for recycling at household waste and recycling centres could be easily reused, so regulations to encourage reuse are sorely needed. Or ecolabelling of products, like the French repair index, which has been shown to help consumers choose more repairable products, and which has had a knock on effect on manufacturers’ support for repair. Or a ban on the destruction of unsold goods. I don’t really need to say anything more about that.

These are all important policies, but what we need is a joined up, overarching strategy that aims to keep things in use longer, reduce what we’re throwing away and reduce the reliance on buying new.

Efforts to make it easier to expand the collection of e-waste from people and businesses is a perfect opportunity to retain value in products, especially as it will help to minimise damage in transit. But this will only be the case if reuse is made central to system design.

Philip Dunne of the Environmental Audit Committee recently called out the government for its inaction to tackle our  “e-waste tsunami”. Will the WEEE call for evidence lead to a more strategic approach? We shall see, but let’s hope we don’t have to wait another three years to find out.

(Feature image by Mark A Phillips, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

 

1 Source: The Global E-waste Monitor 2024

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