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WEEE is not working

The world is full of perverse incentives and misplaced interventions, and the UK WEEE legislation is the embodiment of both. The EU’s aim for its waste legislation is to drive resource efficiency and create a circular economy, but the UK's implementation of the WEEE recast failed to address some fundamental flaws. The WEEE producer compliance system is fundamentally flawed for several reasons. Firstly, because it operates on the basis of volume targets so it is geared towards collecting the maximum amount of ewaste, not deriving the maximum value from the resources contained within it. Secondly, because it doesn't measure whole device re-use or parts re-use, both of which are preferable to recycling from the point of view of the waste hierarchy and essential components of a circular economy. And thirdly because it imposes a cost on the EEE producer which is based purely on market share and takes no account of how easy it is to recover value from the device. As a result, the most expedient process for recyclers is to bulk up ewaste and shred everything, resulting in low-grade recyclate that has little value as a manufacturing resource. Even if a device is working, or repairable, the collection process damages it beyond repair. And there is no incentive on WEEE producers to improve the design of their products to facilitate repairability or material recovery at end of first use. Compare that process with an ICT asset recovery company that inspects devices to determine what can be refurbished or cosmetically improved and resold for second use, what can have spare parts harvested for use in repairing other devices and what can be dismantled so that single metals or polymers can be recovered and substituted for virgin materials for other manufacturing processes. A large proportion of ICT equipment has sufficient intrinsic value to fund the recovery processes, generate a profit margin for the asset recovery company and even return some value to the producer or the user. Many such programmes offer social value, by making donations to charity or funding education projects. This approach supports the resource stewardship agenda, returns value to the economy and creates jobs, but no account is taken of these benefits in the government's WEEE targets.

Many suppliers of ICT equipment in the B2B sector now find themselves in a situation where they are compelled to pay into a compliance scheme which customers avoid because the alternatives are preferable from both an economic and an environmental point of view. The system is quite simply not fit for purpose.

Among all the business risks of Brexit lie some opportunities - freedom from the EU WEEE targets could enable a new system to be designed that prioritises re-use, refurbishment and material recovery. But unless it's embedded in the industrial strategy, it's more likely that the UK will get a domestic replica of the broken EU system.