What is WEEE recycling and why is it so important?

Question: What is WEEE recycling?

The history of WEEE recycling: key facts about the WEEE scheme, how it works and how it benefits you

You might have heard the term WEEE recycling or WEEE disposal. Maybe you’ve seen the symbol of a crossed-out wheelie bin. But do you know what ‘WEEE’ stands for or what it does? In this article we describe the history of WEEE recyciling, where WEEE came from, how it works and why it’s so important.

WEEE icon - crossed out wheelie bin
WEEE symbol is a crossed-out wheelie bit

What is WEEE recycling?

WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment – in other words, electrical and electronic goods that are being thrown away. So ‘WEEE recycling’ refers to the recycling of unwanted electrical goods or components. And when you see terms such as ‘WEEE disposal’ and ‘WEEE collection’ they’re describing the end-of-life management of any product, large or small, with a plug, cable or battery. 

What is the aim of the WEEE regulations?

The ultimate aim of WEEE recycling regulation is to tackle the world’s fastest-growing waste stream, electricals, to curb environmental damage and to stop the economic value of a range of precious materials being lost forever.

How does WEEE regulation work?

The principle behind the WEEE recycling scheme is simple: if you produce or sell electrical goods, you are responsible for what happens to them at the end of their useful life. That puts the onus on the producer or retailer to collect and recycle a certain amount of product – currently 65% of the weight of goods they put into the market. If they miss the targets they pay a fee into a fund which is used to improve recycling services. 

Behind the scenes, the system that makes this happen is quite complex. Essentially producers of electricals join compliance schemes who make contracts with local authorities, retailers and recyclers to do the collecting, weighing and recycling. These compliance schemes then report to the Environment Agencies on the quantities of electricals collected from local authorities and retailers. 

History of WEEE recycling: where did WEEE recycling regulations come from?

The WEEE regulations are now just over a decade old. But their origins go back to the mid-1990s when the European Union (EU) was looking at getting packaging manufacturers to take responsibility for their waste. 

Then in the early 2000s the EU moved to control hazardous substances in manufactured goods – lead (Pb), mercury (Hg), and cadmium (Cd) for example. At the same time electricals also came under the spotlight. The EU WEEE directive was created to make producers responsible for tackling the burgeoning mountain of waste electricals. 

EU Directive 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment (the WEEE directive) became European law in February 2003. It set collection, recycling and recovery targets for all types of electricals – initially at 4 kg of electricals per head of population per year. 

The UK translated the WEEE directive into national law. From 2007 this law obliged producers, retailers and local authorities to collect, treat and account for electrical waste.

And it’s not just in the UK. Across the European Union the life-cycle of electrical equipment – from production to disposal – is now regulated by European and national laws.

Does the same electrical recycling scheme apply across Europe? 

Actually, no. Different countries have different WEEE systems. A few still have a single scheme for collecting and managing all the recycling. But most countries have between three and six waste electricals schemes. 

The UK is unusual in having as many as 28 producer compliance schemes.

What benefits have we seen from WEEE recycling? 

The thing most of us will notice is that it’s becoming much easier to recycle our old electricals. There are more collection points than before, more retailers offering collection services, making it easier and more convenient to have our unwanted electricals reused or recycled. And thanks to the Recycle Your Electricals campaign recycling locator, it’s now easier than ever to find your local electrical recycling point.

The result? A lot more electrical waste is now being collected and treated than previously. Which is good news for the planet and the economy: fewer precious resources being sent to landfill means less carbon emissions, less mining for primary materials –  and less damage to the environment and communities.

Why is WEEE recycling so important?

Recycling our old unwanted electricals is a really important way of saving precious natural resources and curbing climate-changing emissions. And it’s something more and more of us can do as the recycling network expands and improves. 

What will happen to WEEE after Brexit?

So much for the history of WEEE recycling. What next? As Britain exits the European Union, UK WEEE regulations will no longer be hardwired to the EU regulations. They are very unlikely to disappear though, since electricals are the fastest growing waste stream in the world. In 2020 as much as £100 million was being invested by producers into collection and treatment of WEEE – including into local authorities.

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