UK WEEE Recycling Targets and Best Practices for Increasing Capture

Table of Contents:

Waste electrical equipment
2m tonnes of WEEE is disposed of annually

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is any device dependent on electric currents or electromagnetic fields that has been disposed of and is no longer in active use. With around 2m tonnes of WEEE disposed of annually, it is the fastest-growing waste stream in the UK.

WEEE has developed into a significant environmental concern due to a combination of throwaway culture and the integration of electrical products into almost every aspect of modern life. Hoarding, meanwhile, is also contributory, with research showing there are 20.7m unused but working electrical products “hoarded” in UK homes.

As a foremost concern, WEEE recycling aids landfill diversion and conserves natural resources by reducing requirements for impactful extraction and mining practices, as well as protecting human and environmental health by restricting the release of toxic substances. Moreover, it helps to establish sustainability and circular economy pathways by helping to promote waste as a resource.

Ensuring a safe and effective system for WEEE recycling can raise several challenges for UK households. However, there are a number of best practices that can be followed to increase capture, encourage reuse, recycling and recovery, and ultimately mitigate environmental harm.

The Issue in Focus

Upgrade culture and its wholesale contemporary influence was largely introduced by the tech industry. It was originally regarded as a pragmatic transition that provided a next step following the inevitable end of a product’s life cycle. However, the concept has since been perpetuated by consumers’ willingness to repeatedly invest in iterative device and hardware upgrades. Products are no longer designed for longevity, rather falling into obscurity once a more “desirable” model is available. It’s a largely unsustainable translation and contributes heavily to e-waste, and this influence is arguably most stark amongst mobile phones, where the result of a hugely over competitive market compels new models to flood the market on an annual basis.

Scrap mobile phones
Mobile phones exemplify e-waste

There are an estimated 16b mobile phones worldwide. In Europe, almost one-third are no longer in use. Mobile phones and most other electronic devices contain valuable materials like copper, lithium, silver and platinum. Hoarding or incorrect disposing of these devices restrict our ability to extract these valuable resources, many of which are crucial for the transition to low-carbon societies. This encourages the notion that resources not extracted from waste have to be mined elsewhere, usually at great environmental cost.

The environmental impact of WEEE is aggravated further due to a variety of toxic substances contained within most electrical devices, including mercury, nickel, zinc, lead, cadmium, and barium, among others. When disposed of incorrectly, these end up in landfill sites and can potentially run into soil and groundwater.

Lithium, essential for the rechargeable battery component of a high capacity of electrical devices, has caused great concern for waste management infrastructure in recent years, with a surge in fires in dustcarts and Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) partially attributed to the presence of lithium-ion batteries, which can quickly exacerbate any fire risks. Last year, there were 700 fires in dustcarts and HWRCs in the UK, all linked to damaged and incorrectly disposed devices containing lithium-ion batteries. The Environmental Services Association (ESA) has stated these incidents cost fire services and waste operators in excess of £150m.

In an uncompromised state, lithium-ion batteries are generally perfectly safe. However, they can also be extremely volatile. If the separator that divides the particles is damaged, the electrodes can overheat and enter a phase known as thermal runaway, leading to a sudden and explosive discharge, a release of smoke, and significant fires that escalate quickly.

The Rise of Vaping Devices

Alongside mobile phones, one of the most commonly offending items containing lithium-ion batteries, are vaping products. These modern products have developed swiftly on the market as a lower-risk alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes. However, they have driven controversy from several contributing factors. The presence of nicotine means they are just as addictive as conventional cigarettes, while vape products have been found to contain thousands of chemical ingredients, most of which are yet to be identified.

A single-use vape
Single-use vapes present many concerns

Single-use vapes, specifically, have drawn widespread criticism by contributing to a vaping ‘epidemic’ among teenagers, with the appealing branding and a variety of flavours hooking a new generation of young people, despite many of whom never having smoked before. In addition, the environmental concerns attached to single-use vapes have driven calls for a ban by organisations like the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC) and the Local Government Association (LGA).

Around 1.3m single-use vaping devices are said to be thrown away on a weekly basis in the UK, with a troubling amount incorrectly disposed of in general waste streams, despite being a fully recyclable product containing a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Single-use vapes contain a variety of environmentally damaging materials, such as metal, plastic cartridges, batteries, and toxic chemicals.

When littered, these pose significant risks to environmental health, with the sheer number of discarded vapes making this a very real issue and one that must be countered with an increased awareness and funding for WEEE recycling regulations, extending responsibility to hold vape producers more accountable in-line with current regulations, and ultimately even a Government enforced ban.

WEEE Recycling Regulations Targets

Any producer of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) placing products in the UK must follow regulations on both the equipment they sell and the equipment that becomes waste. 

Producers that place more than 5 tonnes of EEE on the UK market must join a Producer Compliance Scheme (PCS), a membership organisation that operates to finance the collection, treatment, recovery and safe disposal of WEEE collected in the UK. A compliance fee for UK companies that fail to meet annual recycling targets is set higher than the average costs of collection to encourage higher participation, and is then contributed towards the WEEE fund to support efforts to increase capture.

Regulations for WEEE disposal set by the UK Government contain annual targets for the collection, treatment, recovery and safe disposal of WEEE over disposal. The categories covered in WEEE targets are as follows:

Electrical recycling
2023 WEEE target is set at 511,376 tonnes

Last year (2022) DEFRA set an overall collection target of 511,376 tonnes. The final figures stated that a total of 467,517 tonnes was collected, representing a 9% deficit, with only 3 categories reaching their target. These were display equipment, automatic dispensers, and photovoltaic panels. This was the sixth consecutive year that the overall collection target was missed.

For 2023, the new target has been set at 471, 942 tonnes, representing a 1% increase from 2022 collections. In addition to these targets, DEFRA also released 2022 recovery and recycling targets for Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities (AATFs), included in their WEEE evidence and national protocols guidance.

Best Practices for Increasing Capture

Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) published an extensive WEEE Collection Guide in 2021, focusing on the collection of WEEE from households and explaining the roles of different parties, alongside good practice choices for adopting the most suitable collection methods to help increase capture. The respective parties and collection methods involved in the guide are as follows:

Refurbishing old electrical items
Reuse items must be processed at an AATF

Best practices for increasing capture should prioritise a WEEE hierarchy of prevention, reuse, recycling and recovery. Prevention is ultimately the fundamental intention and vital to ensure landfill prevention.

Practices for reuse involve inspecting the item and ensuring any appropriate cleaning, repairing or refurbishing is made so the item is ready for redistribution. As noted in the WRAP guide above, when promoting re-use in collection, early intervention is necessary to separate valuable items. Items delivered to a designated collection facility and sent for re-use, must be received by an AATF or done so in a manner that enables evidence to be collected as part of the PCS.

Designated collection facilities, operated by a combination of retailers, charities and local authorities are currently the most effective solution for households to increase capture of WEEE. There are currently over 11,000 Electrical Recycling and Reuse Points across the UK for households, including a mix of local collection points, council-run waste and recycling centres, and drop off points.

For the hierarchy to succeed, collection points must be easily accessible for every household. This can be supported through active public communication to raise awareness, whether through virtual means, such as marketing materials and campaign-led initiatives, or through more physical actions, such as incorporating clear signposts to assist in navigation.

The incorporation of dedicated signage and iconography, such as the crossed out wheelie bin, must also be integrated to raise awareness of items that must be taken to a separate collection point to ensure safe disposal and increase capture, with fire-risk warnings an additional means to advise people of the dangers involved with incorrect lithium-ion battery disposal.

First established in January 2021, drop-off points as part of the Retailer Kick-back Scheme are seeing large-scale integration in the UK, offering a service where households can recycle their old electrical items when they are looking to upgrade or replace, often at the same store where they are purchasing the new item. The scheme is developing quickly in the UK with a growing number of businesses taking part.

Several local authorities have also launched kerbside collection services for households. Research has found that if a kerbside collection for small electrical items was introduced across the UK, it could help to collect an annual capacity of 85,600 tonnes of WEEE. Some local councils, such as Breckland Council and North Lincolnshire Council have joined with public services companies to offer residents a kerbside collection services for batteries and small electrical and small mixed WEEE.

Initiatives and Solutions

Increasing Capture for Communal Settings

Alongside a lack of awareness for the correct and safe disposal of WEEE, the biggest hindrance for increasing capture is access restrictions. For communal residential settings that share waste & recycling facilities, such as those in flatted accommodation, assisting in the collection of WEEE and ensuring safe disposal can be a challenge.

A kerbside collection system raises difficulties for those in above-ground dwellings or households without regular access to a kerb. In densely populated urban areas, it can also raise issues when the system relies on households to properly segregate their waste, as lack of internal space can make it difficult to store bins for separate waste streams.

The obvious alternative for communal households to help increase capture is a designated collection facility. However, the nearest HWRC or drop off point might be located several miles away, and, for those without regular access to a vehicle, this can be extremely hindering. In these circumstances, the likelihood of unsafe and inappropriate disposal of WEEE in regular waste streams is increased.

WEEE specific aperture for small items
WEEE Specific aperture for small appliances

To provide a solution, metroSTOR has developed a WEEE specific aperture, compatible with our existing range of PBM bin housings. Dedicated WEEE disposal points that offer clear signage are an effective measure for local residents to help simplify the safe disposal of WEEE. The WEEE specific aperture facilitates the separation of small to medium-sized items within the housing, where items can then be collected and transferred to HWRC or AATF, helping to assist in best practices for increasing capture. It can be utilised and integrated alongside corresponding waste and recycling apertures to deliver a complete waste management system for communal residential settings.

In addition, battery collection boxes can also be integrated to any metroSTOR communal bin housing, with this feature reducing the need for specific visits to collection points by encouraging easily accessible disposal points in communal waste facilities, as well as reducing fire risks by ensuring batteries are correctly recycled.

Long-term Considerations

Ultimately, for WEEE targets to be successfully obtained for the long term, it is essential for producers and distributors of electrical items in the UK to continue to work with their customers to reduce WEEE and restrict the fastest growing waste stream in the UK.

While efforts to extend producer responsibility and raise awareness among the general public have developed since the introduction of WEEE regulations in 2014, following best practices to help increase capture among households helps to create crucial pathways and develop efforts to help ensure a sustainable future, encourage the transition of waste into a resource, and conserve natural resources.