The world is full of perverse incentives and misplaced interventions, and the UK’s waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) legislation is the embodiment of both.
The EU’s aim for its waste legislation is to drive resource efficiency and create a circular economy and, at the beginning of July, it announced new, more ambitious targets. But without major adjustments to the UK’s application of the directive, we will surely miss them.
The WEEE producer compliance system is fundamentally flawed, for several reasons.
First, because it operates on the basis of volume targets, so it is geared towards collecting the maximum amount of WEEE, not deriving the maximum value from the resources contained within it. Second, because it does not measure whole device or parts reuse, both of which are preferable to recycling from the point of view of the waste hierarchy and essential components of a circular economy. And third, because it imposes a cost on the equipment producer which is based purely on market share, and takes no account of how easy it is to recover value from the device.
As a result, the most expedient process for recyclers is to bulk up WEEE and shred everything, resulting in low-grade recyclate that has little value as a manufacturing resource. Even if a device is working or repairable, the collection process damages it beyond repair. And there is no incentive on WEEE producers to improve the design of their products to facilitate repairability or materials recovery at end of first use.
Compare that with an information and communications technology (ICT) asset recovery company that inspects devices to determine what can be refurbished or cosmetically improved and resold for second use, what can have spare parts harvested for use in repairing other devices, and what can be dismantled so that single metals or polymers can be recovered and returned in as-virgin quality for other manufacturing processes.
A lot of ICT equipment has sufficient intrinsic value to fund the recovery processes, generate a profit margin for the asset recovery company and even return some value to the producer or the user. Many such programmes also offer social value by making donations to charity or funding education projects.
This approach supports the resource stewardship agenda, returns value to the economy and creates jobs, but no account is taken of it in the Government’s WEEE targets.
Many suppliers of ICT equipment in the B2B sector now find themselves in the same position as Kyocera. We are compelled to pay into a compliance scheme, but hardly any of our customers use it, because the alternatives are preferable from both an economic and an environmental point of view.
Indeed, when we retire old IT kit, we use a free asset recovery service with added social value in preference to the WEEE compliance scheme that we offer to our customers.
The current WEEE legislation will miss its targets because it serves nobody but the compliance partners and yet, according to recent press reports, they cannot make it pay either We need a better system, and quickly.
Tracey Rawling Church is director of brand and reputation at Kyocera, a multinational electronics and ceramics manufacturer headquartered in Japan.
Rawling will speak on designing for circularity in the Circular Economy Connect Theatre at RWM in partnership with CIWM on 16 September at the NEC, Birmingham.