UK government misses opportunity to address "e-waste tsunami"

06 April 2021
6 minute read
Best practice

UK government misses opportunity to address "e-waste tsunami"

06 April 2021
6 minute read

e-waste tsunami

This article has been contributed by Astrid Wynne Rogers of Techbuyer.

Governments around the world are developing policies around the Circular Economy and the UK is no exception.

In July 2020, it released a Circular Economy Package policy statement, saying the country was “committed to moving towards a more circular economy which will see us keeping resources in use as long as possible, extracting maximum value from them, minimizing waste and promoting resource efficiency”. It continued to describe “an ambitious and credible long-term path for waste management and recycling”.

February 2021 saw this ambition severely limited by the Government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC)’s inquiry into Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) heard evidence from stakeholders waste management, manufacturing, retail, repair and public sectors as well as activists and non-profits working in the field.

Techbuyer was amongst the list as a product lifecycle extension specialist. Importantly to some members of the committee, we demonstrated there is a strong economic case for circular economy practice. We were also able to provide evidence to some of the barriers of widespread adoption.

We took part because it was a chance to help achieve positive change. However we were disappointed that the government did not adopt all the recommendations in the final report. We were not the only ones. Committee Chairman Rt Honourable Philip Dunne MP pulled no punches in his comments on the government response,

“Our report made the case for quick and decisive action to tackle the e-waste tsunami. While we are pleased that some of our recommendations are being taken forward, the Government seems to ignore the urgency of getting a grip on the growing e-waste problem.”

Here is a breakdown of how.

Kerbside collection and online retailer responsibility

The government agreed with recommendations on for e-waste collection by online retailers and the development of kerbside collection for e-waste. This is great for collection of some items, however it is not clear how security issues will be handled. Some consumer devices allow the user to clear the data, but some do not. Depending on the device, it may be possible for third parties to access personal or sensitive information, with obvious GDPR implications. It will be interesting to see how this progresses and whether it affects legislation for device manufacturers.

Product labelling

The Government outlined that provisions within the Environment Bill which could improve consumer awareness of the repairability and recyclability of products. For example, mandatory labelling to outline which components are recycled and how repairable the item is. The idea is that this could help consumers make more sustainable purchasing decisions and reduce their consumption of resources. However, there is no mention of a weighting on this or a breakdown into the materials list.

A manufacturer could, for example, say a product was 70% recycled content and fail to mention that this was of low environmental benefit overall. If the remaining 30% was precious metals and rare earths, then the carbon cost of the product (as well as risk to global supply) would be almost equal to non-recycled alternative.

Rejection of VAT relief

The UK government response rejected VAT relief for repair services on the grounds that lost revenue would have to be recouped elsewhere, which is a missed opportunity for materials retention. While there is obvious short term truth in keeping the VAT revenue stream, this is balanced by the possible benefits of investing in circular economy business development. Business and governments across the world have bought in to the circular economy concept because of the economic value it represents as well as the energy and materials savings. Stimulating business that support this – like repair – would seem to be more of an investment than a loss.

Rejection on materials focus

The UK Government response rejected moves towards the recovery of critical raw materials. Weight-based targets (current practice which the government is set to continue) overlook valuable materials that weigh less. Many of these materials and components, such as gold, tungsten, indium, lithium and cobalt, are particularly important to the UK’s low-carbon ambitions. Alternative solutions are being researched, but these tend to involve other Critical Raw Materials so our best option is recovery of materials already in the value chain.

Without supporting the processing of e-waste – with a view to life extension and improved recycling technologies – then the country is setting itself up to fail on the circular economy opportunity. It is also going to fail on capitalising on the benefits that digital can bring.

The pathway to circular practice

ICT equipment is highly energy intensive to produce, contains multiple precious metals and at least 23 of the 30 materials on the EU’s Critical Raw Material list. Some are estimated to run out in decades unless alternative supplies are found. The seabed has been suggested as an alternative source. A better one is to invest in developing recycling technologies which are currently incapable of retrieving anything like the full materials list.  Rare materials are present in trace amounts, alloys and coatings in ICT. These disappear during mainstream recycling practice, which is melts the items down to recover the more valuable metals.

Research is underway to develop other technologies but it is in the very early phases and will take years to develop. Recyclers will need to have a clear idea of which materials are in which components to make it economically viable. Society will also need to encourage more repair, reuse and remanufacture reduce reliance on virgin sources whilst that happens. Government refused the advice of the EAC report on how to do this.

This article has been contributed by Astrid Wynne Rogers of Techbuyer.

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