The use of electronic devices and equipment has boomed in recent years thanks to advances in technology, materials and software. There are now more devices connected to the internet than there are humans on the planet. This is predicted to continue, fuelled by rising consumer demand and decreasing costs.
This growth has led to a rapid increase in electronic waste (e-waste). Globally, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were produced in 2017, 90% of which was sent to landfill, incinerated, illegally traded or treated in a sub-standard way. Europe and the US account for almost half of all e-waste globally, with the EU predicted to produce 12 million tonnes by 2020.
Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, said:
“Our old fridges, freezers, computers, TVs, kettles and mobile phones are piling up in a ‘tsunami of e-waste’.
“New phone launches, cheaper goods, and built-in obsolescence have contributed to the growth of electronic waste in recent years.
“The UK produces more e-waste than the EU average. We are missing EU targets and are one of the worst offenders for exporting waste to developing countries, who are ill equipped to dispose of it in a socially and environmentally responsible way.
“Our attitude to e-waste is unsustainable and the need for radical action clear. We will be investigating the UK’s e-waste industry and looking at how we can create a circular economy for electronic goods.”
Terms of reference
The Committee welcomes written evidence on some, or all, of the following points by 5pm on Friday, 16 August. Submissions should be made using the Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy inquiry page.
Implementing a Circular Economy for Electronic Goods
- What steps are being taken to move towards a circular economy for electronic goods? How can the UK Government support this transition?
- What is the environmental and human health risk from e-waste? How significant is it and who is most at risk?
- How can secondary markets for electrical goods be improved? What incentives are required to implement these markets?
- Why does recovering materials from electronic waste pose a significant challenge? What support is required to facilitate the adoption of recovery technologies?
UK’s Electronic Waste Sector
- Are UK Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) collection targets achievable? What challenges do UK producer compliance schemes and WEEE reprocessors face in meeting the collection targets?
- What causes fraud in the UK’s e-waste system? How can this be addressed?
- What action can the UK Government take to prevent to the illegal export of e-waste to the developing world?
- What proposals does the UK Government need to consider as part of its consultation on WEEE?
- Is UK public awareness of e-waste recycling satisfactory? If not, how can it be improved?
Electronic waste (e-waste) is hugely valuable, worth at least $62.5 billion annually, the equivalent of the GDP of Kenya. This value comes from high value metals in electrical components such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium. Second-hand markets for products such as smartphones are well developed, however, the World Economic Forum has argued that there is ‘significant room for improvement.’
Despite the intrinsic value of e-waste, recycling rates are low and much of the world’s e-waste ends up in landfill. Furthermore, while the technology to recover materials and metals exists, it is expensive and under-utilised.
E-waste can contain up to 60 different metals and chemicals, some of which can be hazardous to human health and the environment, including contaminating soil, polluting water sources and entering food supply chains. Crude recycling techniques in the developing world, such as burning plastic from goods to harvest the valuable metals, exposes workers to toxic substances and carcinogens leading to health problems.
A recent report from Agbogbloshie, Ghana linked toxins from e-waste to the contamination of chicken eggs with dioxins and PCBs. Agbogbloshie is a scrap yard and slum where 80,000 residents primarily subsist by retrieving metals from e-waste, some of which originated in Europe.
Export of Electronic Waste
Despite a ban on e-waste exports to developing countries, 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented goods are exported from the EU each year. In February, the UK was ranked as the worst offender in the EU by the Basel Action Network. Following the report’s findings, the Environment Agency closed down four illegal waste operators in the UK.
The export of e-waste from developed countries to developing countries has been identified as a global challenge with some countries in Africa and Asia becoming key destinations for e-waste dumping. The UN has called for binding agreements on the classification of waste and stronger national legislation and enforcement. In May countries were unable to reach agreement on proposals for sustainable e-waste management under the Basel Convention. These will be reviewed again in 2021.
Electronic Waste in the UK
The UK produces 24.9kg of e-waste per person, higher than the EU average of 17.7kg. Electronic waste in the UK is managed under the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive and The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013.
A collective producer responsibility scheme exists. This means producers have a financial responsibility for the end-of-life of their goods, calculated by market share, but do not have to reprocess their own goods. Collections are carried out via Household Waste Recycling Centres and take back schemes run by retailers or local authorities. Defra sets annual targets for the collection of WEEE across a range of categories.
These are calculated based on the WEEE Directive’s target of 65% of the average annual weight of electrical and electronic equipment placed on the market over the previous three years. The target for 2019 has been set at 550,577 tonnes, a 12% increase on 2018 levels. The UK missed its WEEE collection target by 45,000 tonnes in 2018.
The Government has committed to publishing a review of the 2013 WEEE Regulations this year and consulting on changing WEEE by the end of 2020. This consultation will consider ideas to incentivise sustainable product design and increase recycling. It has also committed £8 million in funding over the next three years to support research, behaviour change and local projects to boost reuse and recycling.