For the second year running, figures for collected waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) have fallen short of Government targets. In fact, in 2018, Defra’s statistics show that the total tonnage collected fell by around 30,000 tonnes to a little under 495,000 tonnes.
In view of this and the increased WEEE Directive targets, producers have been set higher targets in the year ahead. So, what’s behind the decline? Is it a reduction in new sales, or an increase in second hand sales or hoarding of WEEE?
A story for the ages
A key source of data is REPIC’s annual consumer survey, which provides intelligence on consumer recycling behaviours and motivations, split between different demographics, and how these impact on ownership and end-of-use behaviour.
The results reveal a surprisingly wide range of different routes for used EEE that people no longer require. The routes used are affected by age group, ease of recycling/reuse and personal attitudes, and the type of device or appliance.
The 2018 survey revealed a significant change in the WEEE disposal behaviours of young people. In 2018, 7% of 16-24 year olds stated that they put their old and broken products in the bin compared with 36% in 2015.
The quality and condition of an item is the most important factor for 37% of people in 2018 in deciding what they do with old electricals, but the choices people make vary by age. Those aged between 16 and 29 are less likely than people over 60 to recycle electrical items – whether broken or in good working order – preferring instead to sell them online. This apparently growing flow of second-hand products helps explain why the sale of a new product does not always result in an old product appearing in the UK WEEE system.
Resale vs recycle
These changes may have been driven by the increasing value of tech, but people’s perceptions of ‘condition’ vary between generations, which in turn is likely to influence whether items are resold, donated or recycled.
- 16-29 year olds estimate the current value of their outdated or broken EEE items at around £700- 800.
- That’s over £100 more than the value estimates made by the 30-44 age group, and over £600 more than the estimates of those aged 60 years and above.
The ease of buying and selling of items online has had a significant impact on second hand EEE flows. The growth of the resale market is leading to working products that may have relatively high value being passed on by their first user well before the end of the product’s working life. This is especially evident in the second-hand smartphone market, where trading-on outperforms the overall market by four to five times. 120 million used smartphones were sold and traded by consumers around the world in 2016 alone.
Finding legitimate second, third or multiple life uses for unwanted electrical items contributes to the circular economy and is to be encouraged. However, the amount of products going down this route is not reported in official data and therefore may be contributing to WEEE not arising at local authority sites.
The increased value of products, together with confusion about how to dispose of them and ‘just in case’ storage of working items seems to be leading consumers to hoard. Products that could be reused or recycled are instead languishing in houses, sheds and garages across the country.
Across small, medium and larger electrical products, an average of 16% of survey respondents in 2018 would store items that were broken and no longer working. This rises to an average of 22% of respondents when it comes to products that are unwanted but in good working condition. Hoarding appears particularly prevalent when it comes to products such as mobile phones and MP3 players with 26.5% holding on to broken items and 25.9% hoarding working products.
Data security is also a key consideration in the decision regarding whether or not to dispose of a product, and is a recurring theme in the consumer surveys. In 2016, 12% of people said data security was stopping them from recycling old devices and 16% of people in 2017 cited personal data as a reason they hadn’t recycled their old electrical items.
In the most recent survey, however, this fear appears to have diminished, with only 9% of consumers stating that the amount of personal data on electrical devices would influence what they do with them when they no longer have a use for them. This shift could be attributed to the monetary value of used electrical goods increasingly outweighing privacy concerns.
Another recurring finding is lack of awareness around which items are recyclable and where they can be recycled. The 2015 survey revealed that over one third of respondents didn’t know that cookers (33%), toasters (34%), phones (34%) or tumble dryers (37%) could be recycled. While these are worrying figures, levels of confusion appear to be dropping. 28% of respondents in 2016 claimed they didn’t know they could recycle WEEE versus 17% in 2017.
This is one example of how understanding what consumers are doing with their used, broken or unwanted products and the motivations for their behaviour can help the e-waste industry identify where improved information and education should be offered to consumers. It’s clear that we can do more as an industry to empower consumers to recycle their unwanted EEE, and the WEEE Fund-supported communications campaign and community support initiatives should bring a much-needed additional focus on encouraging greater recycling and reuse.
These consumer insights are also key to understanding the channels through which the ‘hand-over’ of EEE occurs after its first use and how long products stay in the economy. This type of intelligence helps to improve understanding of the relationship between EEE sales and when WEEE is generated. What is particularly clear from the surveys is the need for better data collection on both EEE and WEEE flows outside of the obligated WEEE entering the UK system.
Looking to the future, it is encouraging to see that the WEEE Fund will be funding research to help deliver greater insights on EEE and WEEE flows. If this can provide comprehensive and useful data on what is happening to WEEE, it should help to close the gap between the targets and the material available for recycling.
Featured image: Curtis Palmer (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr.