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UK electrical waste hits 1.45 million tonnes a year, although change could be coming

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Electrical Waste

Material Focus has released a new report detailing the true scale of electrical waste in the UK, with households and businesses now producing 1.45 million tonnes of electrical waste each year. 

The amount of electrical waste produced each year has been growing in recent years, with it now one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the world. Thankfully, the vast majority of electrical waste goes on to be recycled or re-used, although there’s still a significant portion that simply gets thrown away. 

Despite other waste streams getting well promoted recycling schemes, such as plastic and paper having roadside pickup, many consumers and businesses neglect to recycle their electronics. This results in a significant loss of valuable raw materials, such as gold, copper, aluminium and steel, which Material Focus has estimated costs the UK economy over £370 million a year. 

An estimated 500,000 tonnes of waste electricals were lost through being thrown away, hoarded, stolen, or illegally exported. That includes 155,000 tonnes that has been 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) and 32,000 tonnes illegally exported.

Material Focus also estimated that UK households were hoarding 527 million small electrical items, the equivalent of 190,000 tonnes, accumulated over around five years. The research found that 2.8 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved, equivalent to taking 1.3million cars off the road, if all our old small electricals that are being thrown away or hoarded were recycled.

Scott Butler, executive director, Material Focus, noted, “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.”  

How can the electrical industry help reduce electrical waste? 

The electrical industry needs to take responsibility for the waste that it produces, especially when it comes to replacing old for new. Thankfully, there have been steps taken by the UK Government in recent months that will help combat the growing epidemic of electrical waste. 

Electrical Review spoke to Nigel Harvey, CEO of Recolight, to get his take on the Material Focus report and the steps being taken to help promote better recycling of electrical goods. He commented, “The Material Focus research shows UK consumers discard over 150,000 tonnes of waste electricals in domestic bins. That means it ends up in landfill. This is disturbing news. 

“So it is good to know that from January 2021 most shops selling electricals must provide a take-back service when they sell new products. That makes it easier for consumers to dispose of their e-waste correctly. In addition, Material Focus are offering finance to Local Authorities that are willing to offer a kerbside collection service for e-waste, and they are also launching a national consumer awareness campaign.

“It is also worth noting that the duty to provide a free of charge takeback service also applies to electrical wholesalers when they sell electricals that could be used by a consumer.

“So although it is clearly a concern that so much e-waste is going to landfill, some steps are now being taken to make it easier for consumers to do the right thing.”

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