In the UK, as in the rest of the world, we are buying more and more electrical and electronic equipment. This is driving economic opportunities and improving the quality of our lives but is coming at a heavy cost to people and the environment.
Our electronic products are lasting less time than they used to, they are becoming harder to repair and they aren’t being re-used when they could be. In fact, some companies are deliberately making it very hard for us to repair their items. This means we are buying and using more than we need to be.
In the UK we each create a huge amount of electronic waste—the second highest in the world. Yet we are not collecting and treating much of this waste properly. A lot of it goes to landfill, incineration or is dumped overseas. Under current laws producers and retailers of electronics are responsible for this waste, yet they are clearly not fulfilling that responsibility.
The UK is one of the largest exporters of electronic waste in the world. Some researchers think we send the equivalent of 40% of the electronic waste we collect overseas. This is illegal. In the countries that receive our electronic waste, it is often dumped, with toxic chemicals leaching into the environment and harming people. In this country, toxic chemicals are also causing harm whilst we use the electronics and when they become waste.
Most of us don’t know what to do with our electronic waste. Even on the rare occasions that we do recycle it, it is not getting treated properly. Our recycling systems shred and incinerate it, wasting the rare, precious resources they contain—resources vital to our low-carbon future, our healthcare technologies and our defence systems. These valuable rare resources are already the subject of geopolitical struggles. Some are so rare that they are predicted to run out completely by the end of the century.
To start solving this large and growing problem we are calling on the Government to take action to prevent this—a full list of which can be found at the end of this report. In particular, we want to highlight the following recommendations from the report:
i)We ask the Government to set ambitious long-term targets including for the collection, re-use and recycling of E-waste to be undertaken to a very high standard. We ask that these targets focus on reducing resource consumption; the environmental impact of the industry and on capturing and retaining value including critical raw materials.
ii)Our high streets are under severe pressure and current regulations, coming into force from 2021, could unfairly entrench the competitive advantage of online retailers and marketplaces like Amazon. As a matter of urgency, and at the latest by the end of 2021, online retailers and marketplaces must have an equal obligation to collect electronic waste from customers. To prevent take-back only being offered at remote, inconvenient warehouses, we believe that the exemplary innovation shown by some companies should become a minimum—meaning all large online retailers and marketplaces must arrange and pay for like-for-like electronic waste collection from a customer’s home on delivery of new electronics. They must also offer to collect any electronic waste defined as “small” at the same time.
iii)Online marketplaces must also be made responsible for ensuring that all electrical and electronic equipment sold on their platforms is fully safe and compliant with the law. Producers should be required to pay exactly the same producer responsibility fees and follow the same rules selling online and they do offline.
iv)We ask the Government to ban the practice of intentionally shortening the lifespan of products through planned obsolescence.
v)The Government should also require all producers to label their electrical and electronic products with each item’s expected lifetime, including how long a device will receive software security updates. The label should also include a repairability score based on the product’s design, the availability and cost of spare parts and access and ease of use of repair manuals.
vi)We ask the Government to enshrine a right to repair electronic products in law, enforcing access to repair manuals, affordable spare parts for products and for products to be designed so that repair it not prevented through limited access to physical or software tools.
vii)We call on the Government to reduce the VAT charged on the repair of electrical and electronic products, as takes place in other countries, to reduce the financial barriers to repairing items.
viii)We are calling on manufacturers to ensure their products are recyclable and dismantlable by waste treatment operators. The Government should apply incentives for this, potentially through an extended product responsibility system. Manufacturers should also provide clear information to recyclers about the materials and quantities of those materials in their products. The national materials datahub should be fast-tracked to focus on the movements of rare materials critical to our healthcare, defence and low-carbon technologies.
ix)Government investment in low-quality Energy from Waste plants should at the least be matched by investment in higher quality recycling methods that mean materials, particularly rare and valuable ones being recovered for re-use. Energy from Waste, though important to prevent items going to landfill, should be treated as a low priority in UK waste infrastructure investment strategies.
x)The Environment Agency in England should be undertaking stronger enforcement activity and should be actively collecting data and information to estimate the actual quantities of E-waste being exported illegally.