Mapping waste electrical flows in the UK

Electrical Waste – Challenges and Opportunities: An investigation into Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) flows in the UK.

This is the report of an independent study of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) flows in the UK. The objective of the study was to develop a robust inventory of the different routes by which EEE and WEEE flow through the UK economy, as a basis for recommendations to improve recycling. 

There is known to be a discrepancy between the amount of electrical and electronic equipment sold (put on the market) in the UK and the amount of WEEE reported as collected and treated. A widely cited explanation for this has been that a significant amount of activity related to EEE has not been reported. 

Material Focus commissioned Anthesis Group, with the University of Lancaster, Repic and Valpak, to produce a consolidated picture of unreported WEEE collection and processing in the UK. The study was to characterise the types of undocumented collection and treatment of WEEE and quantify undocumented flows; and identify actors involved in unreported WEEE collection and treatment.

Method

Researchers investigated 21 different flows that influence the recycling rate for WEEE. Taking 2017 as the baseline year, data was gathered through primary research (e.g. surveys and sampling), stakeholder engagement, mathematical modelling and by reviewing relevant literature.

The report contains a detailed overview of findings, the approach taken and an assessment of the authors’ confidence in data sources, analysis and recommendations. Charts detail the weight of EEE / WEEE included in each flow and the types of equipment they contain. 

Findings

The study indicates that, as suspected, reporting for the WEEE Directive does not capture the whole picture of EEE flows in the UK. Factors that contribute to the discrepancy include: 

  • mixing of WEEE in other metal waste streams; 
  • the fact that some treatment facilities are not required to report; 
  • the difficulty of tracking exports for reuse or treatment; 
  • a poor understanding of the amount of time buyers keep, hoard and re-deploy products;
  • disposal by consumers of small WEEE in residual waste; 
  • lack of reporting of sales for reuse by the third sector and businesses; 
  • lack of awareness of regulations among companies outside the UK, resulting in failure to report data on EEE placed on the market.
Key quantitative findings include that:
  • a total of 1.65 million tonnes of electricals were sold (put on the market) in the UK; 
  • 1.45 million tonnes of electrical waste was available to be re-used or recycled;
  • at least 500,000 tonnes of waste electricals were lost through being thrown away, hoarded, stolen, or illegally exported. 

The study represents a more accurate evidence base than previously available. The findings will inform national recycling targets and prioritisation of policy initiatives that support a circular economy. It will also encourage appropriate disposal of electrical products.

The authors suggest that efforts to improve WEEE recycling rates should focus on residual, commercial and industrial (C&I) waste. It also suggests finding ways to improve access to unwanted products, or changing purchase and use models to target hoarded EEE and WEEE.

Read about applying for research funding.

Electrical Waste - Challenges and Opportunities: An investigation into Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) flows in the UK

Mark Sayers, Senior Consultant, Anthesis, & Dr Richard Peagam, Associate Director, Anthesis, July 2020. PDF, 159 pages.

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Cover for WEEE challenges & opportunities report