Manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and consumers could be doing more to get value out of their electronic and electrical goods before they’re consigned to waste. Marcus Gover, director of sustainable products & service systems at WRAP, explains
The circular economy is being talked about more and more at the moment. The attraction of safeguarding valuable resources by keeping them in use for as long as possible through repair, refurbishment, re-use and recycling is clear. It ensures we get the maximum value from valuable materials, bringing significant economic as well as environmental benefits.
However, as you may have heard me say at RWM this year, many are talking about it but too few are taking action to put it into practice. I very much see WRAP’s role as helping those who are taking the lead and encouraging those who have yet to embrace this new approach. Our work on developing and promoting new, resource-efficient business models is an example of this, so the benefits of the circular economy can be unlocked and brought to life.
It is all about taking that first step towards the circular economy. I understand that it can seem like a big step. Our experience suggests there are two key barriers to adopting new business models:
- the perceived risks in developing a new business model combined with a lack of understanding of the benefits; and
- the extent of change required to deliver a new business model, requiring buy-in from many parts of the organisation.
For these reasons, many businesses may choose to invest in more incremental projects which seem to offer a lower risk and a clearer return.
WRAP is actively trying to explain and demonstrate the potential return of these new models. We are working with leading companies who have overcome the difficulties and are now reaping the benefits. Recently, we announced that we had put together a consortium to secure European funding for a series of new business model pilots in the UK and across Europe. Our thinking is very much in line with the Europe 2020 Strategy, which supports the shift towards a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy to achieve sustainable growth.
As well as making the circular economy a reality, these new models bring business benefits such as improved customer relationships and stronger business resilience – benefits that any business would want. We are already making headway in partnership with the clothing sector. We announced the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) 2020 Commitment in June. Signatories are delivering savings in carbon, water and waste through switching to lower-impact textile fibres, extending the active life of clothing, increasing textile recycling and consumer campaigns.
We are now encouraging companies in the design, manufacture and retail of electrical and electronic equipment to look at new models too. The way we produce and dispose of EEE in the UK is not currently very circular. Households purchase and dispose of about 1.4 million tonnes of electrical and electronic goods each year – that’s around 180 million items. Less than 10% of this is currently re-used – this is particularly low when our research shows that nearly 25% of WEEE disposed of at household recycling centres is in working order and could be worth over £250 million if sold.
Furthermore, the way WEEE is generally recycled is not very closed loop. Current WEEE recycling techniques can lose up to 75% of the gold used in electronics and we estimate that over one tonne of gold is landfilled in the UK each year. A tonne of gold is worth around £25 million at today’s prices. Gold is just one of the valuable materials we are wasting in this way. We will be publishing a report later this year showing just what happens to all the valuable resource tied up in electrical and electronic equipment. As we expect the UK to generate around 12 million tonnes of electronic waste between now and 2020, this will be very important.
A more circular approach would mean more reuse and better recycling of WEEE. It would also involve designing electrical goods to last longer, to be more repairable and to be easier to recover valuable materials from when they are recycled. There are clear savings to be made – we estimate that product returns due to failure currently cost UK retailers and brands around £400 million per year, for example. New models also offer opportunities: to build brand value, improve customer satisfaction and develop new markets.
I was particularly impressed when I visited Environcom in Grantham recently. I saw a very impressive operation aimed at maximising the reuse potential of electrical and electronic goods. Washing machines were being stripped down, repaired, meticulously cleaned and tested ready for reuse. The result was clean, refurbished used washing machines ready for sale. They are even offered with a guarantee. I looked at one Bosch machine that I would have happily had in my home – it looked new, had a guarantee and was being despatched with reusable packaging. It wasn’t just washing machines though – fridges, driers, TVs and a range of consumer electronics. I really felt I was seeing the circular economy in action.
If the circular economy is going to take off, giving consumers confidence in repaired, refurbished and reused goods will be crucial. The guarantee that came with the washing machine from Environcom is a key part of this. Confidence in the organisation refurbishing the products is also important. This is where standards and quality systems come in. PAS141 has been developed to assure the quality of reused and refurbished electrical and electronic equipment. The Furniture Re-use Network also has a set of excellent standards for use by its members. There are also a range of other product-specific standards.
WRAP is very supportive of all these. At the same time, we felt that there was no overall standard or framework that any reuse organisation, in the commercial or non-profit sector, could use to cover all its products and activities. We convened a Technical Advisory Group drawn from government, local authorities, waste management companies and the reuse sector to help identify how that gap might be filled. The result was the generic reuse standard that we have just launched a consultation on. It is probably more of a framework than a formal standard and it is meant to work hand in hand with other more specific standards. We have developed it with guidance from the sector, so we hope it is something that will help. The industry has been fairly vocal in its feedback so far. So if you have views, please do respond and help us to get it right. We will listen to any feedback we get during the consultation, which is open until 1 November.
So how do we unlock the value of EEE and WEEE? If we can bring more circular economy thinking to this sector we can improve recycling, expand reuse and develop new business models. There is money to be saved, markets to be developed, jobs to be created and, of course, environmental benefits to be realised.
For more information about the consultation, visit: www.wrap.org.uk/reusestandard