Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of MRW, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Opportunities in e-waste

Last month, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a report on the business and economic rationale for a circular economy. WRAP was among the expert organisations to contribute.

The report, compiled by McKinsey, said the traditional linear economy model was facing competition from the circular economy - specifically, that designing and using durable goods in accordance with circular principles offers materials savings in Europe that could be worth $380bn (£243bn) in an initial transition period and up to $630bn with full adoption.

The foundation focused in its report on fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) - products that typically have a lower unit cost, are bought more often and have a much shorter service life than durable goods. The report says that FMCG currently account for 35% of material inputs into the global economy, 75% of municipal waste and more than 90% of our agricultural output.

To help visualise how circular our economy is and the progress the UK is are making, WRAP has compared the material and waste flows around the UK economy in 2000 and 2010. It has produced a projection for what it thinks things might look like in 2020.

You can see the diagrams on the website. But to summarise, it believes that the circular approach during 2000-10 has resulted in 30 million tonnes less direct material input going into the economy; 30 million tonnes less being consumed; 70 million tonnes less waste; 70 million tonnes more being recycled; and 55 million tonnes less going to landfill and energy from waste.

We have talked before in MRW about the example of plastics recycling and the closed loop, but what about electrical products?

WRAP has been looking at a range of household items in this category to explore priority areas, and is due to publish its findings shortly. Even when reuse and repair options have been fully explored, these products could still have more to offer.

Between now and 2020, WRAP estimates that waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) in the UK will total more than 12 million tonnes. This waste will include precious metals with an estimated market value of £7bn.

So WRAP is undertaking three trials looking at the recovery of critical raw materials from WEEE, with a focus on hard disc drives, circuit boards and component segregation. The trials are looking at the technical recovery potential and the costs/benefit of recovery. Results from these trials are expected in the late summer.

Meanwhile, in around a year’s time, the WEEE Directive Recast will become enshrined in law, and it will lay out how our WEEE should be collected and dealt with.

The formal consultation which the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills is expected to launch next month will help to define exactly what shape the UK’s WEEE collection and treatment regime might take.

Of course, designing-out waste in the first place is the preferable option. At the beginning of the process is the chance to apply smart design and taking to heart if we can, to quote the RSA, the idea that waste is a “design flaw”. WRAP’s product reviews show how better design can also save money on production costs, and reduce the occurrence of both product returns and warranty or guarantee claims.

But the creation of products that truly enshrine this is likely to be some way off, so the next best step is to maximise reuse and repair.

WRAP aims to help stimulate and support growth in this sector, and has funding available to help businesses increase capacity for reuse and repair of electrical products. WRAP is also encouraging retailers to develop resource-efficient business models, such as incentivising trade-in of products for reuse.

Current research shows that 23% of WEEE disposed of at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) has reuse potential, with a market value that is greater than that of their material value - potentially up to £200m across the UK. WRAP is shortly going to run trials to quantify the opportunities that exist for the reuse of WEEE that is taken to HWRCs.

One of the perceived barriers to reuse is consumer fears about the quality and safety of second-hand electrical goods. They want reassurance that what they are buying has been professionally repaired/refurbished. There are some tools available to help.

PAS141 is a specification developed by industry that can be purchased from BSi. It refers to product protocols that should be used for assessing and testing repaired products. WRAP also offers a set of protocols, and many organisations find them helpful as a starting point and guide.

WRAP is developing an overarching reuse standard for the industry, and any product or standard such as PAS141 will sit underneath this. This work is due to complete early 2014.

WRAP’s funders are keen to explore related topics which could help to find ways of making the product area more circular. This pathfinder activity is currently focused on four main areas:

  • Testing the business case for longer-life products. Customers would be less likely to return products and it increases the opportunity for resale models.
  • Identifying the market pull for longer-life products. Will consumers be happy with an electrical item that has built-in longevity? Or will they still want to trade up to the next faster/high spec version as soon as it is available? Will they respond to take-back schemes?
  • Identifying priority products which are likely to make the biggest difference to UK resource consumption in this product area.
  • Developing and providing guidance to help manufacturers produce goods which not only have waste designed-out but have longevity built-in.

If all the pieces of this jigsaw are successfully put together, then the UK could be well placed to close the loop for this material stream.

Marcus Gover, director, circular economy, WRAP

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.