Attracting small WEEE out of consumers’ homes and back into reuse or recycling is still a challenge – but recent initiatives could mark a step change in extracting more of this type of material
UK householders have around £1bnworth of small electrical and electronic hidden gems stashed around their homes, according to research by WRAP. It will be music to most people’s ears to hear the survey also found that around two-thirds of individuals surveyed would be willing to trade in these gadgets with retailers.
Yet small WEEE is probably one of the most problematic waste streams to deal with. Items languish in a drawer or at the back of a shelf – they don’t take up much room and so are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.
From a consumer’s point of view there is the issue as to where exactly these products should be recycled. There are exchange schemes for mobile phones, iPods and MP3 players, but they are not as convenient as a kerbside collection scheme. Indeed, householders complain that such schemes are not as user friendly as they might be – and not all local authorities offer WEEE collection services anyway.
The double whammy is that items of small WEEE – often expensive and highly engineered – lose the opportunity to be reused the longer they sit gathering dust because they quickly become overtaken by new technology. And while such items can contain valuable and rare metals, the raw material value is far outweighed by the resources used in the manufacture of gadgets in the first place. It is very clear that reuse is the most desirable route, where possible, for such products.
Work by WRAP and Axion Recycling in 2008 supported the view that kerbside collections could boost reuse. It recommended quarterly or half yearly collections in order to maximise WEEE volumes, and highlighted the importance that the method of collection protected goods from contamination or damage so that they could be reused.
It also recommended that such services were backed with education and awareness campaigns. Yet since then, council budgets have been cut back leaving much less scope for educational programmes.
Two years later WRAP undertook a study of four WEEE collection events that aimed to show the benefits of partnership working. The study considered the opportunities of WEEE recycling schemes for schools, local authorities, retailers, producer compliance schemes, third sector organisations and approved authorised treatment facilities. It also provided useful advice on how to make collection events successful, and what each particular organisation needed to do to get the most out of these events.
The Recycling Locator is a WRAP initiative that allows householders to look up where they can recycle goods, not just WEEE, close to their location. WRAP also runs the sustainability action plan Esap, which works alongside the electrical and electronic sector to rethink the design, manufacture, sale, repair, reuse and recycling of products. Its focus is consumer electronics such as TVs, laptops, vacuum cleaners, fridges, washing machines and the like. So there has been a lot of work gone into WEEE recycling.
But in June WRAP announced that it was to turn up the volume with regards to WEEE and prioritise this waste stream – alongside organics and textiles – as a key focus in its five-year plan. Just one month later it unveiled an ambitious WEEE recycling project with high street giant Argos. The retailer launched a swap scheme where customers can bring in unwanted mobile phones and tablets and receive an on-the-spot quote and be given an Argos voucher in return. The company launched the scheme across all its 788 UK stores and the initiative has attracted a lot of press attention.
The Argos scheme has been developed in collaboration with the EU Life+ funded REBus project. This is a scheme led by WRAP and partners from the UK and Netherlands to demonstrate how businesses and their supply chains can establish resource efficient business models or circular economy models.
If the Argos scheme is successful, it could be extended to include cameras, satnavs and laptops. It is one of the few examples of retailers moving towards a circular economy model. M&S working with Oxfam has its clothes ‘Shwopping’ scheme but there is not much else like this out there.
Alice Ellison, environment policy adviser at the British Retail Consortium, says: “Circular economy discussions tend to forget about retail and go straight from manufacturer to end user. So the challenge for retailers is working out what their role is. This makes the Argos project really exciting.”
As she points out, retailers may be the ‘middle man’ but they are selling hundreds of thousands of products and, if a circular economy is to be achieved, they will need to play a part. Retailers are looking at different business models, and one often-quoted option is to consider leasing rather than sales.
“A particular challenge for retailers is selecting which product would work well and customers would want to lease,” says Ellison. She argues that products such as a drill might be something that a customer is willing to lease, because it is not used frequently. But consumers might not like the sound of leasing a product they use frequently and want to store in their own homes.
“At the moment people are more accustomed to buying a product but, in the future, they may become more comfortable buying a service,” adds Ellison.
Nick Purser, communications manager at producer compliance scheme European Recycling Platform (ERP), welcomes the Argos scheme. ERP works with around 50 local authorities and well-known brands such as Microsoft and Samsung. Purser says the sorts of high-end gadgets being targeted by the scheme are rarely found in council collections, so it is going after a waste stream that is being neglected and is not in competition with existing schemes.
“Argos is encouraging reuse that is not coming through traditional routes,” he says. “Offering vouchers on the spot seems to be a quick way of doing things for the consumer and it’s raising the profile of reuse.”
ERP has also been behind a creative way of tackling WEEE waste: through music. In 2010, the company threw a huge party to celebrate the fact that it had recycled a million tonnes of WEEE across Europe.
Parties were held across 10 European countries, and in the UK this was held at a Soho nightclub with the help of indie music label Heavenly Recordings. Heavenly was the label behind artists such as the Manic Street Preachers, Saint Etienne, and Beth Orton. Those wanting to attend the Electronic Recycling Party had to bring with them a piece of WEEE for recycling.
Out of the Soho party was born a long-term collaboration between Heavenly Recordings and ERP, dubbed the Make Noise Project. Each year it runs free music events and other projects, such as photography exhibitions, to support music colleges and put out the recycling message.
“Part of it was mainly fortuitous – happening to get the guys from Heavenly and we all enjoyed working on it” says Purser. “There are very few people who turn up to the events with nothing. There are a lot of phones, and we’ve even had George Foreman grills and old CRT TVs.”
This year Make Noise has its own stage at the OnBlackheath music festival in south-east London on 12-13 September. While this is part of a ticketed event and so entry is not free with a piece of WEEE, ERP and Heavenly will be promoting its SELFiEEE Facebook project.
Festival goers will be invited to bring a piece of WEEE with them and take a photo of themselves with it, to post on the Facebook site. SELFiEEE is also being promoted around the country, and anyone can post a photo of themselves with an item of WEEE they are recycling. A prize of £250 for the best photo is being offered.
Purser says: “18 to 25-year-olds are the biggest users and consumers of gadgets and they upgrade regularly. Music is a good way of engaging with that age group. We always get good traction in the media with Make Noise because it captures people’s imagination.”
Make Noise has featured across newspapers and magazines, has around 1,500 followers on Facebook and Twitter, and more than 1,000 downloads have been made from the Recycled Versions Soundcloud.
All of which is highlighting the reuse and recycling of WEEE, which may otherwise lie abandoned in a drawer.