118.When electrical and electronic products reach the end of their life and can no longer be repaired or re-used, recovery of the materials for use in new products can reduce the damaging extraction of new materials and will help the UK secure more precious and rare materials for use in vital sectors like healthcare, low-carbon energy and defence systems. It has the potential to retain significant value in the country, create job opportunities, lower council tax and prevent the toxic impact of electronic waste on humans and the environment.
Box 5: Cobalt and Helium – two case studies from the BBC and The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
Cobalt prices rose over 300% in the period from 2016–2018. Over 60% of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it has been strongly linked with child labour and environmental degradation. Recycling existing batteries could therefore play an essential part in the sourcing of sustainable cobalt. Recovering all the end-of-life portable devices collected by EU citizens over the past 20 years could “generate enough cobalt to [produce] at least 10 million electric vehicles”.288
Helium has the lowest boiling point (-269°C) of all the elements and is often used as a cryogenic liquid coolant for MRI scanners. It is primarily used for welding, semiconductor manufacturing, filling balloons, and creating inert atmospheres, but also has a range of research applications, such as microscopy. Helium has a very low density and can therefore be permanently lost from the atmosphere into space. It can be reused to avoid loss, but this is technically difficult. The price of helium has risen by 500% in the last 15 years, and there have been three supply shortages. Despite the discovery of a sizeable deposit in Tanzania in 2016, enough to fill 1.2 million MRI scanners, another global shortage occurred in 2019.289
119.However current methods of disposing of WEEE rely heavily on shredding the material—up to 80 per cent of recycled electronics go to this form of low value recycling. Lithium batteries are now the main cause of fires at waste sites because they are shredded and crushed without prior separation. After shredding there is some separation of different types of products. The resulting shredding mix is mostly exported or incinerated as energy from waste. Green Alliance told us that the lack of appropriate resource recovery infrastructure in the UK perpetuates the linear economy because our current system is heavily focused on energy recovery (e.g. creating energy from waste through incineration). Manual processes can result in far more extraction of materials, but are often far more costly.
120.Shredding does allow for reuse of some raw materials (mostly base metals and increasingly plastics), but yields are often low, and valuable metals, used in small quantities, are often lost completely in the process. The resulting shredding mix, considered toxic, is mostly sent overseas to refineries based in Belgium and Sweden, with some sites also in Japan and Canada, where the waste is heated to high temperatures to extract the base metals with the rest of the waste incinerated as part of the extraction process. There are companies in the UK who conduct some form of smelting or refining of E-waste - particularly focusing on ferrous metals, aluminium, lead and stainless steel, however these companies have limited capacity to recycle complex components like Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) and extract materials like gold and silver, or other critical raw materials.
121.The precious metals contained in a tonne of E-waste (in particular in PCBs) can often be far higher than the equivalent in a tonne of directly mined ore which means that ‘urban mining’ of E-waste is quickly becoming more cost-effective than virgin mining at those sites outside the UK that have the size and technology to extract them. In fact, because old E-waste contains more materials than lighter modern electronics, Europe could theoretically source most of the materials it needs for new electronics from old E-waste. The UK is therefore sending valuable and precious materials overseas for recycling and missing an economic opportunity from the high amount of electronic waste this country creates compared to others.
122.However, this is only true of some materials, and those critical raw materials (CRMs), found in small quantities, are still mostly lost, with only around one per cent being recovered worldwide. The European WEEE Directive (article 15) states that information about the usage of CRMs must be provided free of charge to recyclers from producers of electronics placed on the market. However we have heard that recyclers often have difficulty accessing information about the materials in products and where those materials are located, which can cause difficulties in recycling. LG Electronics told us it is trying to respond to a recycler’s request for information about the presence of materials and components in electronic waste that require separate treatment—essential to proper treatment—through working with the EU wide platform “Information for Recycler (i4R)”.
123.This reflects wider problems with the flow of materials throughout the UK, including export. The design of products at the start of their life has a serious impact. As Green Alliance told us:
Recovering materials is such a challenge largely because products are not designed for longevity or to allow for material and parts recovery.
Box 6: National Materials Datahub
According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) the long-term vision of the National Material Datahub (NMD) is a single version of truth for materials information in the UK, open for public good. It would enable the measurement of a resource economy and reflect our evolving and complex relationship to materials. It would support policy decisions and the industrial strategy. The Resources and Waste Strategy highlights the National Materials Datahub as a way of providing comprehensive data on the availability of raw and secondary materials and chemicals. It identifies the electronic tracking of waste as part of this.
124.Evidence to our inquiry has highlighted how advancing the ONS work on a National Materials Datahub, which tracks the flow of materials through society, including in products, could make a big difference. This would include requirements for producers to provide information on the materials in their products to help waste treatment companies in future years. It could eventually contain information about products such as the durability, repairability and eco-design of products. The information contained in the hub is considered a critical and necessary step to reaching a circular economy, as it will allow industry and the public sector to become more resource efficient and use secondary materials. Contributors believe that, due to the growing problem of E-waste and the importance of critical raw materials there is therefore some urgency to set the datahub up.
125.The Royal Society of Chemistry noted that the Environment Bill, unlike the Resources and Waste Strategy, does not include the tracking of electronic waste or critical raw materials specifically. It says, in common with other contributors, that electronic tracking of E-waste and CRMs could inhibit illegal waste export and ensure CRMs are being recovered and recycled properly. Fidra, a UK-based NGO, told us that transparency and accessibility of chemical information for all users and handlers of electronics would enable decision making and safe use, re-use and recycling. In light of the importance of information to this sector the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme at the University of Leeds suggested that electric and electronic products and waste should be an initial case study within the datahub.
126.Manufacturers of electronics must ensure that their products are recyclable and dismantlable by waste treatment operators. The Government must apply incentives, potentially through the extended producer responsibility scheme, for the design of products that are easy to recycle.
127.Producers, via producer compliance schemes, should provide information to recyclers about the materials, including quantities, in their products. A clear date should be set for this to be mandatory. Once the national material datahub is operational then manufacturers’ information should be linked to this.
128.We recommend that the Government fast-tracks the national materials datahub to track critical raw materials in the UK. The aspects that focus on critical raw materials, E-waste and toxic chemicals should be operational by 2023.
129.We have been told that, alongside lack of information, recycling standards and targets are driving low-quality recycling practices. Treatment of waste electronics is based on Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques (BATRRT). Many contributors to our inquiry have said that BATRRT needs updating to include for example, material efficiency standards, as it has not changed since 2006 and “no longer reflects developing international standards of treatment.”
130.As well as BATRRT, the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013 also mandate the percentage of electronic waste, by weight, that must be recycled and/or recovered once it has been officially collected. Recovery of materials can be done either by recycling or capturing energy from the incineration of materials. However even then it does not reach 100 per cent of waste collected, (see Appendix 2 below). It is not clear what BATRRT expects will happen to the remaining amount however, if it is disposed to landfill, the Government must find a solution in order to meet its targets. We have also received evidence that collection, recycling and recovery targets based solely on weight could drive a linear economy pushing up collection of waste over re-use, and quantity of recycling rather than quality. The weight of many electronics is dominated by plastic and metals and so there is little incentive to capture more valuable products that are lightweight such as critical raw materials. This means that the targets do not necessarily drive environmental benefits such as CO2 savings. The recycling company, Circular Resources UK, told us that:
Focussing on a percentage recycled by volume is a useful indicator of the efficiency of bulk recovery but there is a danger that the recovery of precious metals and CRM’s is lost in this statistic as a minor constituent in volume terms. These materials are however significant in terms of resource scarcity and have financial and strategic value.
131.It is not clear how much recycling of critical raw materials is taking place in the UK. Libby Peake told the inquiry that worldwide the figure is below one per cent. In August 2020 DEFRA opened a consultation on new metrics to monitor resources policy which may include moving away from weight-based approach.
132.Piecemeal and rapid changes to standards can cause serious problems for recyclers and harm investment. For example, Environment Agency changes to regulations regarding Persistent Organic Pollutants (PoPs), though welcome and overdue, have had a serious impact on recyclers’ ability to operate and treat E-waste. This is because all E-waste that contains any PoPs is now considered hazardous, can no longer be recycled and must be incinerated at high temperatures. At a stroke AATF’s have lost a significant income stream from the selling of recyclable materials. As the WEEE Scheme forum stated: “when such regulatory issues [as PoPs] arise, impacting downstream markets, we need clear and timely guidance well in advance of any implementation deadlines.”
133.Current recycling and recovery targets and metrics, based on weight, are not sufficient to incentivise the capture of valuable materials. Clear targets for E-waste treatment facilities that are based on capturing value, including critical raw materials, and their environmental impact must be set.
134.Recycling methods covered by Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques, and recycling and recovery targets must be ambitious with a shift away from recovery towards high-quality recycling. There must be a clearly defined and communicated long-term pathway, with milestones, showing when and how E-waste treatment centres must improve their recycling of E-waste to capture as many materials as possible and remove toxic chemicals. This clear pathway will allow businesses to raise finance and invest in advance to reach these mandatory targets.
135.As well as lack of information, evidence to our inquiry has highlighted a lack of investment in the sorting, recycling and treatment of electronic waste. Investment in electronic waste processing infrastructure is vital to help facilities “operate to the highest standards of treatment to maximise recovery and minimise the impact of their treatment processes on the environment”, according to the AATF Forum. The industry also needs significant investment to allow it to keep pace with the increasing amount of electronic waste and the fast rate of change and innovation in electronics. The Royal Society of Chemistry told us that the extraction processes for a broad range of CRMs have been developed at laboratory scale, but further work and investment is needed for commercialisation. Investment will also reduce the costs of recycling and so disincentivise cheaper but more harmful waste processing practices and even the exportation of waste. There are significant cost savings to society and local authorities to investing in better waste infrastructure, including capturing valuable products for re-sale or use in critical industries. Green Alliance estimated the UK could support eight to twelve WEEE recycling facilities and 50–200 more specialised waste reprocesses, creating over £500 million extra value and allowing for the extraction of critical raw materials such as lithium from batteries.
136.The evidence we have received outlines possible reasons for the lack of investment in recycling or processing infrastructure. Other than the lack of E-waste being collected for recycling, as previously discussed several other areas have also been highlighted:
(1) The Government’s current investment strategy.
(2) The market-system for producer compliance schemes alongside poor Environment Agency enforcement.
(3) Fluctuations in the price of raw materials and lack of legislation on recyclable content.
137.The Resources and Waste Strategy commits the Government to investing £3 billion in waste infrastructure by 2042. In evidence, echoed by others, the Resource Recovery from Waste Programme at the University of Leeds reported that the Waste Infrastructure delivery programme is focused on thermal energy from waste or mechanical-biological treatment plants producing refuse-derived fuels. It found that ‘no recycling or reprocessing facilities are listed’ under the Programme of planned projects and called on Government to “stop presenting recycling and [thermal energy] recovery as being of equal value.” It said:
Expecting to achieve a circular economy with an infrastructural monoculture dominated by EfW [Energy from Waste] is magical thinking of the first order … . Planned investments will result in an overcapacity of energy-from-waste (EfW) and this constrains the viability of business models for WEEE reuse, repair, remanufacturing and recycling.
138.In the Climate Assembly UK citizen’s assembly report, participants recommended that Government provide “grants and incentives for businesses to improve recycling, develop new materials and make goods from recycled materials”.
139.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 can be re-used. Energy from Waste, though important to prevent items going to landfill, should be treated as a low priority in UK waste infrastructure investment strategies.
140.The current system for producers to fund waste collection and treatment is a market system, with producer compliance schemes searching for the cheapest companies to collect waste and treat it. This system has come under criticism by contributors to our inquiry. For example Green Alliance told us that the market mechanisms–explicitly promoted in the Resources and Waste Strategy–will deliver only limited recycling facilities and not enough for a move towards a circular economy. Reflecting on this Cris Stephenson, CEO of Environcom, the largest privately-owned E-waste treatment and recycling business in the UK, told us:
…the current system in place is simply not fit for purpose… and is predicated on the principle that competition drives not only the best cost prices but greater efficiency, however due to Governmental intervention in both supply and demand sides of this market the model is dysfunctional. Leaving E-waste to ‘the market’ has led to the current position where the UK is the European ‘serial dumper’ of its E-waste abroad.
141.As mentioned in the section on collection targets above, one aspect of this is the short-term nature of the system, with local authorities, PCSs and recycling plants often only having one-year contracts. REPIC Ltd said that producers can currently move between PCSs annually, which prevents PCSs from offering longer-term contracts to treatment facilities to underwrite investments. TechUK highlighted the lack of a deep and long-term relationship between PCSs and Local Authorities. Reflecting on this short-termism Mr. Stephenson, amongst others, also outlined what he sees as three fundamental flaws in the current UK System of electronic waste processing:
142.One UK solution to the short-termism is requiring longer term contracts between all parts of the system. Mr. Stephenson recommends that producers should join a PCS for three or five years, PCSs should contract with local authorities for three or five years and that PCSs should contract to AATFs for a minimum of three years.
143.Other EU countries have chosen not to implement a market-based system for producer compliance schemes under the WEEE directive. In France, Italy and Finland PCSs are required to be not-for-profit. Most countries also have far fewer PCSs then the UK. For example, Sweden, the only country to have met the 65 per cent E-waste collection target, only has two PCSs, one of which represents 99 per cent of producers and collections. Switzerland, the country with the second highest percentages of collections covered by the directive, has three PCSs. Germany does not have any and uses a clearing house system. The UK has between 28 and 31 PCSs.
144.In written evidence it is alleged that in England poor quality recycling has resulted from poor enforcement and poor understanding of regulations by the Environment Agency. This is particularly important in a market system where cost rather than high quality is the focus. This has allowed producer compliance schemes (PCSs) to direct waste (and purchase proof of recycling certificates) from electronic waste processing facilities that may not be following regulations or that, due to limited investments, have lower costs. REPIC and the AATF forum agree that this lack of enforcement is concerning as there is potentially significant environmental impact from illegal WEEE ‘treatment’ in the UK. Of particular concern is the trade in fridge compressors with an estimate that close to 20,000 litres of compressor oil a year is drained into the earth or surface water system by unscrupulous removal of compressors from dumped items, to say nothing of CFCs that escape through crushing of fridges by low quality scrap metal operators.
145.The WEEE Scheme forum have outlined how independent audits of E-waste treatment centres are no longer required and highlight the fraud that has taken place both by AATFs and PCSs, and that lack of enforcement power that the Environment Agency has, as exemplified by the fine to a PCS of £50,000 for a fraud worth more than £1million.
146.The Environment Agency told us it is taking steps to improve its enforcement and outlined the resources and audits it is undertaking in this area to improve this. For example, last year, the EA increased the number of unannounced visits from seven in 2018 to 24 in 2019. In total they increased the percentage of inspections at E-waste treatment sites to 56 per cent in 2019 from 44 per cent in 2018. However, this still does not reach the height of 2015 where 86 per cent were audited and follows a sustained fall in the total number of AATFs from 173 in 2015 to 120. The number of prosecutions under the WEEE regulations has also increased in recent years (after no prosecutions between 2015 and 2018). The evidence provided by the Environment Agency in relation to its budgets suggests that, though lower than 2011/12, budgets have increased in recent years.
147.The current short-term and transactional nature of the electronic waste system is not delivering the high-quality and high-capacity recycling this country needs if it is to reach a circular economy and extract the full benefits to jobs and the economy of the precious and valuable materials currently being lost. The Government must take strong steps to overcome the problems besetting the system by mandating that producers, compliance schemes, local authorities and AATF enter longer term contracts to create partnerships and longer-term certainty. It must also ensure that the market is regulated to a high-enough standard to prevent unscrupulous operators.
148.The price of raw materials and their price variability has a big impact on the viability of investment in recycling technology and capacity, because recyclers rely on selling the recycled materials. For example, aluminium is extensively recycled because of the high costs of extracting it from minerals. Solutions that could help recycled materials be cost competitive and help improve the lack of investment in recycling include: (1) VAT and other tax breaks on recycled components and companies meeting recycling targets, (2) legislation on the amount of recycled content in new products and (3) taxes on raw and virgin materials or non-recycled products. In evidence to us commentators have argued that the approach to single use plastic could be replicated for electronics. For example Alison Stowell suggested that:
In a similar way to encourage a percentage of recycled plastics to be present in the production of new single use plastics, the same policy could be adopted for the electrical and electronic manufacture–given than on average 20% of the products are made up of plastics. [This would] incentivise the use of secondary materials, bio-based resources and rare earth metal substitutions because some virgin materials are still cheaper than alternatives. [There are] e.g. taxation opportunities to encourage the use of x% of secondary materials/recycled materials as has been discussed for plastics.
149.We have been told that this would also create a market for secondary materials and hold up prices which could go some way to overcoming a lack of investing in new recycling capacity and innovative approaches due to the fluctuating prices of raw materials in electronics, often caused by market ‘dumping’ from countries with developed raw-material mining infrastructure.
150.Increasing resource productivity by reducing the amount of resource that is extracted to make new products will be crucial to reducing the damaging impact of extractive industries on the environment and safeguarding scarce resources that are vital to a low-carbon economy. Improving the long-term price certainty of recycled materials will help recyclers invest in more capacity and improved process. The Government should find ways of driving the use of more recycled materials in new products. This could be done through taxes on virgin materials, or through rewarding producers that use recycled products through eco-modulated fees.
151.Another issue with the current framework for treatment of E-waste is the exportation of E-waste to countries with sub-standard methods of treatment, causing serious harm to humans and the environment. Under the Basel Convention, to which the UK is a signatory, export of E-waste is illegal except in the case of re-use and repair. In the UK this is codified in the Trans-frontier Shipment of Waste Regulations. What’s more many countries that have previously accepted waste from the UK are no longer accepting it, and so returning it when it is shipped there (e.g. China, Vietnam).
152.Despite this exportation is still the cheapest way of dealing with E-waste and the ‘repairability loophole’ allows products to be exported for re-use if they are not yet classified as waste. We have been told that in practice this means a large number of waste electronics can be exported. The impact is that prices for E-waste treatment in this country are driven down, and that there is not enough potential E-waste for treatment. This prevents recyclers investing in better and higher quality treatmentand can also drive recyclers to cut corners when trying to be cost competitive with illegal routes. As Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network told us:
you can never have a truly circular economy if waste is exported overseas, because the externalities [i.e. the cost of recycling and treating E-waste and the hazardous material in it] are not being internalised into the cost of the product or the producers’ profits.
153.Jim Puckett told the committee that estimates put the UK figure of E-waste leaving the UK for developing countries at 209,000 tonnes. This can be compared to the official amounts of E-waste collected in 2019 at 494,000 tonnes. Some of the exported E-waste is part of the officially collected amount and some is not. Research by BAN, and re-iterated by the UN, has found that the UK is one of the worst offenders for the exportation of E-waste.
154.The Environment Agency do not automatically classify all used or returned EEE as WEEE (i.e. as waste). Jim Puckett told us that allowing repairable and reusable electronics to be exported should be considered a loophole because “the problem is that anybody can declare something is repairable”. This can lead to the exporting of items that are ‘in essence’ waste (WEEE) but are only classified as ‘used EEE’ which is not subject to the same WEEE export regulations. The classification of used EEE differs in Scotland where the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency deem all used equipment as waste until it has been tested. The Environment Agency told us that:
Our stance has always been that for items to be exported for re-use they must have been through an assessment process and be packaged and ready for direct re-use. If they haven’t been through an assessment process the items are classified as waste, and must be notified before export.
It told us that some companies mis-describing products that have not been tested or assessed, are undertaken illegal activity which is subject to enforcement.
155.The WEEE recycling company Environcom suggested that “the UK Government should deem all returned / disposed of sold EEE as WEEE unless otherwise proven.” The AATF Forum called for clarity in the UK’s waste export system which varies across countries:
For instance, green list waste exports do not have to even be notified to the Environment Agency prior to export and must simply carry a form with the waste. This varies around the UK with pre-notification required in Northern Ireland and post notification in Scotland. Defra are known to be reviewing the current system with a view to a consultation in 2020.
156.Green list waste is waste that considered low risk to the environment under the Shipments of Waste Regulations. You can usually import and export these wastes for recovery without the need for prior authorisation. For example, you do not have to notify anyone before you import or export uncontaminated waste-paper for recycling. Red-list waste is the opposite and requires prior notification to regulators for export.
157.In England where exportation for re-use is allowed without notification the regulation of electronics being shipped out of the country is all the more important to ensure items are not actually waste. However, there has been wide agreement from contributors to our inquiry that the Environment Agency in England is not undertaking effective regulation and that:
the chances of getting caught are vanishingly small. It is quite easy for waste cowboys to avoid the cost of legitimately dealing with waste, and it is far too easy for them to misdescribe waste and send it abroad.
158.The Environment Agency told us it is developing better and systems and improving their audit process to prevent the exportation of E-waste. Malcolm Lythgo, the Deputy Director of Waste Enforcement and Regulation at the Environment Agency, told us that they are increasing the number of audits and unannounced visits. The Agency is increasingly taking an intelligence-based approach to make sure that they are targeting their activity based on the highest risk. It also told us that they are working closely with HMRC and port-authorities and getting evidence from shipping companies. It also told us that:
last year we stopped and prevented over 22,000 tonnes of waste being illegally exported. Of that, only 1,765 tonnes were WEEE. Therefore, the general proportion of illegal activity that we are finding at ports is a relatively small proportion of WEEE. That is also backed up by the repatriation requests that we get when something has been illegally exported and an overseas authority asks us to bring it back. Again, it is a relatively low proportion, in the order of 10% to 15%, which is waste electrical.
Prosecutions for illegal exportation of WEEE have fallen considerably. Between 2010 and 2015 there were 22 prosecutions, yet between 2016 and 2020 there have only been three. The number of port inspections undertaken by the EA, was around 1,400 per year in 2014 and 2015 but have since fallen to between 900 and 1000 inspection per year.
159.There are in some cases legitimate reasons to export overseas old electronics that can have a second life. However, due to the serious impact of E-waste on human health and the environment, both here and overseas, and the sheer quantity potentially being exported illegally, the Environment Agency should deem all electrical and electronic exports as risky and in need of more stringent requirements before exportation is allowed.
160.The presumption, unless proved otherwise, should be that electronics are not usable. All electronics should be tested and proved to work before exportation. No good should be exported that needs repair to be workable. There should be harmonisation of this across the UK to prevent goods being moved from one nation to another for exportation purposes.
161.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.
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