Electrical waste – challenges and opportunities

16 July 2020

New research – UK households and businesses are producing 1.45 million tonnes of electrical waste per annum

  • 1.65 million tonnes of electricals are bought each year
  • 915,000 tonnes of electricals are sent for reuse and recycling
  • At least 500,000 tonnes of waste electricals are being lost through being thrown away, hoarded, stolen, or illegally exported

Today, Material Focus has launched new research that provides a complete and in-depth overview of the amount of electricals sold and electrical waste generated in the UK, across households and businesses. Electrical waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the world, with discarded or hoarded household electricals estimated to cost the UK economy over £370 million per year of lost valuable raw materials such as gold, copper, aluminium and steel.

The research “Electrical Waste – challenges and opportunities” conducted by sustainability experts Anthesis and its partners Lancaster University, Repic and Valpak, provides the latest robust inventory of the flow of electrical products and waste in the UK. The research also looked at the volumes of electrical waste that is being put to good use through reuse or recycling. The main purpose of the research was to help the industry identify where action can be taken to improve UK reuse and recycling rates for electricals, and to support overall recycling, and re-use target setting.

Key findings of the research have identified that:

  • A total of 1.65 million tonnes of electricals were sold (put on the market) in the UK. 
  • 206,000 tonnes are new electricals not replacing old items. 
  • 1.45 million tonnes of electrical waste was available to be re-used or recycled, including:
    • 653,000 tonnes processed for recycling by approved and authorised treatment providers.
    • 82,000 tonnes of household electricals processed by reuse organisations.
    • 180,000 tonnes of electricals processed by commercial reusers and IT asset management companies. 
  • At least 500,000 tonnes of waste electricals were lost through being thrown away, hoarded, stolen, or illegally exported, including:
    • 155,000 tonnes thrown away in domestic bins and being incinerated or landfilled
    • 145,000 tonnes of commercial electrical waste thrown away in skips with no evidence that it is recycled
    • 114,000 tonnes stolen (LDA, mixed WEEE, displays and compressor units from refrigeration)
    • 32,000 tonnes illegally exported 

A key finding of the research has highlighted that for a variety of reasons not all new sales of electricals are replacing old items like for like.  Around 206,000 tonnes of additional large and small electricals are being used per annum.  For example, UK householders and businesses are increasingly owning more tech and new types of equipment are being launched such as smart speakers. 

Complementary research recently launched  by Material Focus estimated that UK householders were hoarding 527 million small electrical items, the equivalent of 190,000 tonnes, accumulated over around 5 years. The research also found that 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 emission could be saved, equivalent to taking 1.3[6]million cars off the road if all our old small electricals that are being thrown away or hoarded were recycled.

The research, “Electrical Waste – challenges and opportunities” conducted by sustainability experts Anthesis and its partners Lancaster University, Repic and Valpak  provides an in depth overview of the electrical waste challenge in the UK exploring the main sources of waste including business, and household waste electricals during 2017.  The research utilised new methods to analyse where electrical waste ends up including gathering data through primary research e.g. surveys and sampling of household rubbish, stakeholder engagement, mathematical modelling and by reviewing relevant literature.  

Scott Butler, Executive Director, Material Focus said: “ The UK is throwing away, or hoarding at least half a million tonnes of valuable materials that could be reused or recycled. More needs to be done to tackle this and ensure that we don’t waste these valuable materials that are being thrown away, whether it’s incorrectly disposed of, hoarded, illegally exported or stolen.  The focus of our recently launched ‘Recycle Your Electricals’ campaign is to encourage more UK householders to stop throwing away and instead recycle or reuse their small unwanted electricals.  In addition we will continue to invest in research to help the industry and policy makers understand more about where and how these household and business electricals are being lost, and we hope that the research can inform future actions to prevent this loss.”  

Mark Sayers, Senior Consultant, Anthesis said: “The research, “Electrical Waste – challenges and opportunities” provides the most comprehensive and robust view of the amount of electricals sold and waste generated in the UK. Anthesis and our partners Lancaster University, Repic and Valpak undertook a comprehensive and robust inventory of the multiple stages that electricals flow throughout the economy. Data was collected through primary research including surveys and sampling of household rubbish, stakeholder engagement, mathematical modelling and by reviewing the relevant literature. The research will be invaluable to policy makers and industry stakeholders alike to identify  where electricals ultimately go and to improve recycling in this important waste stream.”

Material Focus  is making recycling small old electricals easier than ever before by launching an information hub for the UK, and making it easier for an additional 4.1 million households to access recycling facilities. The campaign is encouraging more UK householders to gather up their old unwanted electricals and then put them in a bag ready to be recycled once lockdown has lifted and local recycling facilities have reopened. A new postcode finder has launched on www.recycleyourelectricals.org.uk with details of over 2,000 recycling, repair and reuse points, with new collection and drop-off points being added to the site on an ongoing basis. *

– ENDS –

 FULL REPORT:

Read the full research report here.

 CONTACT:

For further information or interviews please contact:  Kate Hinton 07714 708416 / email kate@materialfocus.org.uk

For more information on the campaign visit www.recycleyourelectricals.org.uk or join the campaign by using the following hashtags #RecycleYourElectricals #Dontbinitbagit, tagging @RecycleYourElectricals on Facebook, Twitter @RecycleElectric on Twitter and @RecycleYourElectricals_ on Instagram.

NOTES TO EDITORS:

About Material Focus 

Material Focus (formerly the WEEE Fund), is a not-for-profit organisation whose goal is to stop the nation throwing away or hoarding all their old small electricals. It has launched the new UK-wide Recycle Your Electricals campaign. The campaign will reveal the value hidden in electricals and will make it easier for us all to recycle and reuse the small electricals we no longer need by providing more recycling points as well as providing practical information on how households can recycle.

The campaign is funded by producers of electrical appliances. The UK government sets annual targets for the recycling of all waste electricals, including small electricals. If producers of electrical appliances don’t meet this target, then they contribute towards a fund.  Since 2017 over £15 million which pays for a range of activities, including communications, behaviour change activities, increasing  recycling collection points and options and technical research. Ultimately the aim is to support actions that will help the UK increase the levels of reuse and recycling of waste electricals.

* Whilst the UK is in lockdown due to Covid-19, Material Focus advises checking the opening times for local recycling facilities and following government social distancing advice.

About Anthesis 

Anthesis is the sustainability activator. We seek to make a significant contribution to a world which is more resilient and productive. We do this by working with cities, companies, and other organisations to drive sustainable performance. We develop financially driven sustainability strategies, underpinned by technical expertise and delivered by innovative collaborative teams across the world. The company combines the reach of big professional services groups with the deep expertise of boutiques. Anthesis has clients across industry sectors from corporate multinationals such as Reckitt Benckiser, Cisco, Tesco, The North Face and Target, and also supports early stage companies through Anthesis Ventures. The company brings together 500 experts operating in 40 countries around the world and has offices in Andorra, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Middle East, the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the U.S.www.anthesisgroup.com

Electrical Waste – challenges and opportunities research

Anthesis and partners Lancaster University, Repic and Valpak were commissioned by Material Focus to investigate unreported flows of EEE and WEEE in the UK during 2019. Building on previous studies, they developed a robust inventory of the different routes by which EEE and WEEE flow through the UK economy, to relate to WEEE Directive target setting and as a basis for recommendations to improve recycling. The research team gathered data through primary research (e.g. surveys and sampling of household rubbish), stakeholder engagement, mathematical modelling and by reviewing the relevant literature.

Material Focus’s Hidden Treasures research

Key findings:

  • UK householders could have made £17 billion from second hand re-sale value of small old electricals – around £620 per household. 
  • There are 140 million cables held in people’s homes across the nation – enough to go around the earth over 5 times 
  • UK households are hoarding 527 million small old electricals, an average of nearly  20 per household
  • If all the old laptops hoarded across the UK were recycled, they could provide enough aluminium to produce 159,000 bikes; enough steel to make 12,000 playground swings; or enough plastic to make nearly 5 million life-saving defibrillators 

Methodology

The new research highlights the vast scale of how many electrical products are being thrown away or hoarded in the UK. Hidden Treasures,  commissioned by Material Focus, drew on three key studies that explored: how many electricals are being stored or thrown away in UK homes; the environmental impact; and the potential for these precious materials to be recycled into life saving equipment, bikes and playground swings.  Eunomia Research and Consulting, Anthesis and YouGov were commissioned to provide data and in depth analysis that informed the results of the research.

YouGov Plc. Research conducted by YouGov and commissioned by Material Focus. Total sample size was 2112 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th – 25th February 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Eunomia Research and Consulting Ltd. Research conducted by Eunomia and commissioned by Material Change in February 2020.  The purpose of the research was to provide new insights into the potential that old electricals could have when recycled, identifying the volume of materials either hoarded or thrown away, the lost carbon and the lost value to the UK economy, and what the materials inside electricals could be turned into.  In order to achieve this, Eunomia used various in-depth research methods, starting with sales figures for the top 12 small household electrical items so as to target the most prolific items.

These items were then disassembled to identify the key materials and components by weight and thereby to calculate the related embodied carbon in the items, for the UK as a whole, and the net carbon benefits of recycling the materials in these items rather than throwing a proportion of them away to be landfilled. Eunomia then identified the equivalent number of cars that would have to be taken off the road to achieve the same effect, and the number of defibrillators, playground swings and roundabouts and bicycles that could be made with the predominant materials (plastic, steel and aluminium). Finally, the lost financial values were calculated based on the value of the waste materials and the residual value of the whole items if sold on second-hand markets.

Find out how you can get involved today

One of our friendly team will be happy to help.