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UK worst offender for illegal e-waste exports, says EAC

The UK is the worst offender in Europe for illegally shipping its e-waste to developing countries according to a new report published by the Environment Audit Committee (EAC).

Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy, authored by the cross-party parliamentary group, explores how the UK could reduce its environmental impact, create economic opportunities and maintain access to vital materials by better managing and minimising its e-waste.

It highlights that up to an estimated 40 per cent of e-waste collected in the UK – up to 209,000 tonnes – is illegally exported overseas, while around 155,000 tonnes of e-waste is sent to domestic landfill or incineration sites. The report makes 27 recommendations on how the Government can better manage and minimise the UK’s waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

The report recommends the Government reconsiders the current collection and recycling target systems, which are deemed ‘unclear’ due to the Government’s use of substantiation in collection and recycling estimates and a lack of transparency about how the items will be treated after collection.

The report calls on the Government to set ambitious, long-term collection targets for e-waste – for which, according to Eunomia, the UK ranked the worst of nine European Economic Area (EEA) countries in 2018, at 29 per cent – lower than the 37 per cent substantiated estimate by Defra. The targets should align with existing commitments, such as ‘zero waste to landfill’, set using independently verified data. 

The MPs note that weight-based targets do not adequately address the environmental impact associated with different WEEE treatment options. Targets, they argue, need to be widened to reflect other criteria as well, such as material efficiency standards.

The report warns against setting targets based on volume, which Circular Resources UK says is a ‘useful indicator of the efficiency of bulk recovery’, but poses a ‘danger that the recovery of precious metals and critical raw materials [that can be] lost in this statistic’.

Furthermore, the report considers the potential the sector will not achieve Producer Compliance Scheme (PCS) targets. In particular, it notes the ongoing problem of ‘free-riding’ by online marketplaces such as Amazon, which are in part operating outside the system.

The EAC calls for such online retailers to have an equal obligation to collect and dispose of electronic waste from customers – a system that Amazon claims could be ‘simplified across Europe by allowing online marketplaces to report and remit Extended Product Responsibility fees on behalf of sellers’. 

A further obstacle to the UK improving management of its electronic waste – and one that the report emphasises as posing a great risk to humans and the environment – is exporting WEEE overseas, usually illegally and to developing countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and India, where infrastructure for treating e-waste is poor.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) estimated the total amount of electronic waste being exported from the UK at 209,000 tonnes per year.

For this, companies reportedly use the ‘repairability loophole’, which allows electronics to be shipped abroad for reuse. To combat the illegal exportation of electronics overseas, the report makes recommendations on presuming that ‘electronics are not usable’ unless they are tested to ensure they are in working condition before being shipped. 

Robbie Staniforth, Head of Policy at Ecosurety, commented: “We welcome many of the findings contained within this excellent report. There is simply too much short-termism in the current system of producer responsibility with little foresight on recycling and reuse ambitions in the UK.

“However, what this report outlines is that action is needed beyond merely setting ambitious recycling and reuse targets.

“To make good on their promise of a more circular economy in their 2018 Resources and Waste Strategy, the Government needs to legislate to increase product lifetimes, specifically relating to software updates and repairability.

“While it is fashionable to talk about a transition to a circular economy, the basics of the waste hierarchy should not be forgotten. Those manufacturers who rethink and redesign products with the environment in mind should be rewarded in a new producer responsibility system.

“Likewise, the rules should discourage the sale of low-cost, short-life products, which are emblematic of just how linear our economy currently is.”

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