The rise of the circular economy in the WEEE sector

Louise Grantham, chief executive, REPIC, looks at the impact of Covid-19 and the rise of the circular economy in the WEEE sector, saying the pandemic has highlighted the reliance we place on global supply chains and markets, and their inherent fragility.

The waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) sector has been significantly impacted by the pandemic and is likely to be for some time. However, when the UK transitions to a post-Covid-19 world, the WEEE sector can contribute to ensuring the UK becomes a more resilient, circular economy. One where today’s goods are tomorrow’s resources.

How has the WEEE sector risen to the challenges lockdown has presented, what challenges still remain and how can we achieve a more circular economy?

Impact of Covid-19 on the WEEE Sector – Now

When the lockdown was implemented, overnight WEEE collections fell by 80% as the majority of Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC) were temporarily closed and most other potential recycling routes for WEEE were affected too – charity reuse cut off with high street shops and collection points closed, the collection of old appliances through home delivery network was significantly curtailed as social distancing measure were put in place, and those appliances usually collected through warranty repairs remained uncollected in homes and workplaces.

The closure of collection sites and reduction in the collection of WEEE showed little impact on the quarter one 2020 data published by the Environment Agency, although this is not surprising as the lockdown happened towards the end of March.  The data shows that the total household WEEE collections in the quarter were slightly ahead of the pro-rata 2020 target.

The picture in quarter two 2020 is somewhat different, with limited collections of WEEE taking place in the first two months of the quarter and social distancing measures meaning many collection sites are still operating at reduced capacity.

This has naturally impacted on the flow of electricals for reuse and recycling throughout the WEEE sector, which will have a financial impact on many organisations who normally handle used EEE or WEEE, including the treatment facilities and charity sector reuse organisations.

These organisations are also having to make operational changes to accommodate social distancing requirements. Addressing this challenge, following a period of industry discussion, a timely solution was put in place through the WEEE Fund.

A ‘WEEE Support Grants and Loans Package’ has been made available to support those treatment facilities and reuse organisations through the lockdown period, with the aim of ensuring that when restrictions are lifted we have a WEEE system that is dynamic and competitive with the capacity to cope with any post-lockdown spikes in volume.

The closure of collection sites and reduction in the collection of WEEE showed little impact on the quarter one 2020 data published by the Environment Agency, although this is not surprising as the lockdown happened towards the end of March… The picture in quarter two 2020 is somewhat different

There is concern that some electrical appliances will be lost in the residual waste stream during this period. Whilst most local authorities have reopened HWRCs, not all sites have been reopened, and some have initially only been able to accept residual household waste in black bags and garden waste, or limited streams of WEEE.

Householders however are likely to have spent much more time at home than usual and may have taken the opportunity to de-clutter attics, sheds and garages.

The timely campaign from Material Change, supported by the WEEE Fund, is welcome and is communicating the message ‘to bag up and drop off unused, broken or waste appliances through the appropriate channels when normal service resumes.’ Material Change has a programme of planned activities this year and we can all help support this message through our business communication channels. More information on this can be found at

Meeting the WEEE collection targets this year currently looks difficult. The setting of the targets by Defra coincided with the start of the lockdown period and Defra took the pragmatic view to largely base these on 2019 collections – at that point it was very difficult to anticipate how Covid-19 would affect WEEE collections in 2020 and do otherwise.

The compliance fee mechanism that is part of the UK WEEE regime provides the resilience required to deal with the potential impact of Covid-19 on the collection target.

This provides a means of compliance to Producer Compliance Schemes (PCSs) where they are unable to meet their targets, through the option of paying a compliance fee. This year will be financially challenging for all producers and we welcome Defra’s commitment that it will “absolutely take account of the actual impacts that Covid-19 has had on collections during the year” when setting a compliance fee methodology.

The WEEE sector has shown its resilience in working together during this period. Regular discussions have been taking place between industry and Government to promptly discuss issues as they have arisen, or that may arise, and identify solutions or other measures required to deal with these.

These have resulted in the issue of a number of regulatory position statements or additional guidance being provided to assist organisations in complying with obligations that have been impacted by the effect of Covid-19. There has also been helpful guidance provided from within the wider waste sector.

The WEEE Sector – Going forward

It seems likely that Covid-19 will continue to impact the WEEE sector for some time, so continuing this industry wide approach to identifying issues as they arise and exploring solutions will remain important.

Setting collection targets for 2021 will be challenging, 2020 will not be a ‘normal’ year for the sale or disposal of electrical products. The WEEE Fund has recently commissioned work to understand how Covid-19 has impacted sales and disposals and develop a forecasting tool that will hopefully assist with this.

It is important however that we also focus on the future, and Defra is continuing with its review of the WEEE system and how to implement the commitments made in its Resources and Waste Strategy.

Until the Circular Economy Plan was adopted, the focus of the WEEE Directive was largely linear, in that it was designed around the collection of WEEE and meeting weight-based targets, with producers and distributors having the principle obligations. To achieve a circular economy, where the use of valuable resources is maximised throughout the supply chain, the focus needs to broaden.

A critical factor in designing a successful circular economy will be to review and define the roles of all actors in the system – businesses, including collectors, distributors, local authorities, producers, reuse organisations and treatment organisations, as well as consumers and government.

There is justifiably a focus on the role of producers to design products and business models that allow a) product lifetime extension, b) reuse of products and components, and c) efficient material recovery from end of life products, however this is only part of the considerations required.

Irrespective of any changes that are made to the Regulations, more stringent enforcement is required to prevent the theft and substandard treatment of WEEE.

Understanding consumers and their behaviours – exploring what motivates them to reuse, resell and buy second hand, return instead of stockpiling, and recycle instead of wrongly discarding – all need to be uncovered with the opportunity to find messages and solutions to enable people to do the right thing. Importantly, the sector needs to understand where the stocks and flows of these products are too to provide the right solutions for managing them.

Recent research commissioned by the WEEE Fund indicates that there is a considerable flow of WEEE lost to the circular economy through consumer hoarding of unwanted appliances. There are also legitimate activities that take place outside the WEEE system which affect what happens to an electrical product at the end of its first life or at end of life, and unfortunately illegal activities such as theft of components and illegal export of WEEE as used EEE. Many of these flows are not fully quantified currently.

We need to identify how to bring the legitimate activities into the system in a way which provides greater transparency on these flows and allow these to continue providing quality and treatment standards are in line with the rest of the sector, and any further measures required to prevent the illegal or unwanted activities that are taking place.

Irrespective of any changes that are made to the Regulations, more stringent enforcement is required to prevent the theft and substandard treatment of WEEE.

PCSs have an important role in contributing to a circular economy for WEEE but they are only one actor in the system and not all levers required to achieve this are available to them. Whilst the data for Q2 2020 collections is not published yet, it is evident to all that WEEE collections have been severely impacted by Covid-19.

This in turn will impact the ability of a PCS to meet its annual targets. We hope this will be a one-off and very unusual year, but this highlights an extreme example of the relationship between target achievement and the amount of WEEE made available for collection. The WEEE Regulations review process provides a great opportunity to examine the role that every organisation should play in achieving a circular economy.

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