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Small WEEE, big business

As consumers choose to upgrade their electronics more regularly, more than 1.2 million tonnes of old, discarded, surplus or obsolete electronic devices are produced every year in the UK. Despite this, 2009 Environment Agency figures show that, during the two and a half years since the introduction of the WEEE Directive in 2005, Brits recycled a mere 36% of this e-waste.

The waste generated by electrical goods, such as laptops, iPods and games consoles, is a concern to many. With demand for the latest versions at an all-time high, there is a constant stream of WEEE heading to landfill sites. But there is only a small number of organisations offering consumers an efficient recycling model, similar to that used on an international scale by mobile phone recycling companies. So what are the issues?

Mobile phone recycling can operate solely through the postal system due to the small size and light weight of handsets. Companies send collection envelopes to customers, who send their phones back via freepost. But other types of WEEE pose more of a recovery problem.

One of the major issues hindering a mass recycling model for consumer technology is the variety of weight that needs to be catered for. The average laptop weighs in at 2.5kg while a Playstation 2 is around 2kg - you cannot pop those in an envelope. This is a serious implication at the collection stage of a recycling model.

Because of the implications that weight has for collection from the consumer, few organisations currently offer electronics recycling. The few that do are forced to operate through a courier pick-up service. Such a system requires operational structures to co-ordinate fleets and oversee huge numbers of staff. It goes without saying that running this efficiently requires a huge investment. As such, several recycling businesses only deal with smaller gadgets - MP3 players, sat navs and so on - to get around this issue.

Overseas markets
The ‘four Rs’ of waste management - recovery, recondition, re-use and recycle - are widely known. Clearly, re-use requires consumer demand, which is something that is just not there for many second-hand electronic goods.

After recovering unwanted handsets, many mobile phone recyclers recondition them for sale across the world. Mobile phone recycling specialist Eazyphone currently re-uses 95% of the phones it recovers by selling used handsets to Asia and Africa.

The demand for other types of consumer electronics, such as games consoles and MP3 players, in such markets is significantly smaller. This affects a company’s ability to sell consumer technology, making this particular business model less attractive.

One of the main factors contributing to the success of the mobile phone recycling industry is subsidies. They are designed to encourage customer loyalty by hiding the true cost of handsets within monthly fees and free upgrades. This serves to divorce people from the reality of their phone use.

The truth is that millions of mobile phones are produced, bought and then discarded after a relatively short period of time, sustaining the industry’s growth. Because the handset is free to the consumer, there is no perception of its value, so the criteria for getting rid of it are much lower.

With other consumer electronics attracting lower - in some cases, no - subsidies, people are more aware of each item’s value. This means that electronics are retained longer as consumers seek to get the most out of each gadget and ‘churn’ is inhibited.

There is no doubt that there is a real need for WEEE to be dealt with in an environmentally friendly way. Consumer recycling could be one of the most effective ways to deal with the problem of electronics being sent to landfill. But with several major issues affecting the viability of such a business prospect, it may be a while before a successful mass market recycling model is available to the consumer.
Julie Snape is head of marketing at Envirofone

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