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The grand challenge: how to unite all e-scrap players around the world?

Boosting the global average recycling rate for electronics from 17% to 30% calls for a united view on waste management, bringing together all actors in the chain. In reality, there are many different voices representing many different interests worldwide, delegates heard at the WEEE Forum’s 20th anniversary gathering in Brussels this week.

WEEE Forum members collected 3.1 million tonnes of scrap in 2021, making a total of 35 million tonnes since the organisation was launched 20 years ago. ‘I am proud of what we have achieved together,’ says the organisation’s president Jan Vlak. ‘But e-scrap volumes are growing much faster than our recycling capacity. Market analysts estimate it could hit 70 million tonnes by 2030. That’s not too long from now.’

That is why producers must be made responsible for what they put on the market, Vlak insists. The WEEELABEX standards pioneered by the WEEE Forum have been accepted in many countries, paving the way towards more harmony and standardisation across the continent.

Vlak and other speakers describe this mission, centred on extended producer responsibility (EPR), as ‘one of the grand challenges of our time’. Bruno Vermoesen of the Bosch Group comments: ‘We may have our own agenda and corporate mission but saying that as producers we don’t care about recyclers is simply too harsh. We want to find a sustainable route that works for both of us.’

A common goal

Vlak questions whether existing EPR schemes are still ‘fit for purpose’. The market has evolved, as well as product design, legislation and production and recycling technologies. ‘Time has not stood still. Our 20-year anniversary and the upcoming revision of the WEEE Directive makes this a good moment to look into the future.’

Furthermore, there are no shared guidelines between countries outside Europe. ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we have an international regime, some kind of partnership structure, a global treaty regarding e-waste?’ Vlak asks the audience. ‘There is a business case for a UN treaty on plastics. Why aren’t we looking at electronics?’

Recyclers and producers are often at odds with each other and speakers agreed that a collaboration of actors ‘really must mean all actors – not some more than others’. Seeking common ground and discussing ambitions is seen as vital to ensure a better, less volatile understanding.

The ‘ideal’ loop?

Retailers, consumers and legislators also have a role to play in successful EPR infrastructure, declared Marius Costache, general manager of GreenWEEE International in Romania. ‘We’re in the same team but it doesn’t always feel that way. Producers are facing a lot of pressure and high expectations from society.’ Though it’s understandable, he adds, this doesn’t create the required ‘ideal’ level playing field.

‘It would be helpful if manufacturers also got funding to create more sustainable products,’ Costache suggests. ‘The money is automatically going to the recyclers but is that fair? We all know the power of financial incentives. It could help tip the scales.’

At the same time, the entrepreneur acknowledges not all producers are fans of mandatory in-house collection and recycled content targets. ‘These are necessary to push for higher recycling rates,’ Costache says. ‘If producers are really on board with the circular economy, as they say they are in their annual reports, surely that’s the most logical next step. Not committing to official targets could be interpreted as greenwashing.’

Running the numbers

A total of 10.4 million tonnes of electronics scrap was generated in the EU (plus the UK, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland) inn 2021, according to a new report by the WEEE Forum. This is a significant increase from 2019 when the stream was 8.3 million tonnes. The 2021 total is equivalent to 10.5kg per inhabitant. Based on e-scrap generated, the average collection rate grew from 40% to around 55% in the same period. But using put-on-market data, the average collection rate dropped from 50% to 44%.

This means the 2019 target collection rate of 65% (based on products put on market) was missed by a lot of EU member state, or, alternatively, 85% based on weight. The only exception for the latter was Poland, which had already surpassed 90%. Figures thus show a two-sided story. The majority (19 nations) are currently collecting between 50% and 85%, while 11 nations are collecting below 50%.  

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