WEEE and Us – a Critical Issue

Julie Hill, WRAP Chair

Like me, you probably have a drawer in your house filled with redundant tech: vintage phones, unidentifiable chargers, cables that sometimes work but sometimes don’t. Collectively known as WEEE (Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment), it may include that old laptop that you may just need. Or the old laptop that you’d love to give away, but are worried about the data it holds. You occasionally wonder if any of it is worth anything, but haven’t quite got around to finding out.  

If so, you and I are apparently fairly typical. Despite an EU Directive aimed at recycling WEEE, in place since 2003, a recent WRAP report showed that nearly two thirds of us have at least one smart device stored and unused at home, and as many as 125 million mobiles may be hoarded. Of the more than 10 million tonnes of the stuff generated in the EU every year, the amount captured for recycling is only around 45%.

Why does this matter? WEEE harbours precious materials including gold, silver, platinum, copper and ‘rare earth metals’ – all of them financially and environmentally costly to extract and process, and some of them considered ‘critical’ to our economies. Yet the low capture of WEEE and the difficulty of extracting these ‘critical raw materials’ (CRMs) means that for some, their recycling rate is a measly 1%.

This problem has been the subject of a WRAP-led and EU-funded three and half-year project, culminating in a multi-stakeholder conference in London last month. WRAP was chosen to lead the high-powered consortium (no pun intended) because of our long-standing expertise on both materials and on recycling behaviours. The London meeting heard findings from a series of trials in countries around Europe, aimed at understanding the barriers to greater capture, and the best ways of extracting the CRMS from our tech. Expert panels debated the findings and the policy options that might address the gap.

I had the privilege of closing the conference, and sending delegates away with what we hope is new knowledge and new energy for this mission. Three key themes struck me:

The first stemmed from an observation from one of our partners about the parallel to plastics. At first sight, an obsolete laptop and a plastic bottle are a different order of problem. However, what they share is our inability to attach a proper value to the materials they contain. So bottles end up as litter, and laptops languish in drawers, and the recycling rates are not all that different. Worse, between 5 and 10% of WEEE generated in Europe is illegally shipped to countries where it may be processed in environmentally damaging ways, in a parallel to the ocean plastic shame that has recently engulfed us. The lack of an evident value means we have little incentive to get the waste product (waste to us, but potentially valuable to someone else) to a destination where its value can be realized. Add in practical considerations such as having that bottle ‘on the go’, or worrying about data wiping, and the incentives reduce even further.

The second theme is that just as with the bottle, the re-use option offers the biggest benefits. This came through clearly in the CRM project trials. Many collection methods entail damage to the equipment, meaning that the only recovery route for the CRMs is extracting them from ground-up product. This can be done with various degrees of efficiency, and may be the only option for some WEEE, but anything that can be repaired, built to last longer, or simply passed on, represents, in effect, 100% recovery of the CRMs it contains. And let’s not forget the ‘commodity’ metals (steel, aluminium) and the plastic that will also be re-used.  

The third was prompted by one of the panel discussions, and concerned the future of CRMs themselves. If they are ‘critical’ for a variety of reasons, would it not be sensible to move away from them? Finding substitutes might help to diversify materials in products and reduce the dependency on any one CRM, but might also lessen the pressure to develop and improve CRM recoveryAnd again, plastic comes to mind – if we don’t want plastic, what do we want instead? Will the substitute materials pose different problems? For instance, switching to paper instead of plastic might mean using a renewable, biodegradable resource, but might also entail a higher carbon footprint. Might the substitutes for metals in circuitry, if they are clever bio-based materials, pose similar issues?

The WRAP team is now digesting the results of the trials and the policy discussions, and deciding where efforts will be best focused in future. The reports will be available on line by the end of March 2019 and are eagerly awaited by governments, industry players and innovators alike. Some themes we can guess. If we want longer-lived, more easily dismantled and therefore higher-value products, we need them to be designed with that in mind – yet the market is taking our tech in the opposite direction, towards greater complexity. So, arguably, we need stronger responsibilities to be placed on companies, and make them subject to eco-design standards. We also need to tackle the issue of ‘free-riding’ where some producers of CRM-rich products are not paying into established Extended Producer Responsibility schemes or offering product take-back.

Overall, we also need policies that put incentives in the right place, recognizing that the drawer-syndrome is something we all need to be persuaded out of. That might include incentives that encourage service rather ownership models, so that the drawer is never an option - everything has to be returned.

I regret to report that my WEEE is still in its drawer, but, following the conference, I am gradually formulating a plan for its liberation. This includes finding a repair shop and a trusted data-wiper for the re-usable items, and a local amenity site for the rest. To quote Jeremy Clarkson, that great fan of tech - how hard can it be?