Changing channels – the case for reuse and repair
Dr Christine Cole of the CIE-MAP team at Nottingham Trent University explains why we need a rethink about when and how we dispose of electronic equipment.
With technology advancing so rapidly, many of us are hungry for the latest gadgets, entertainment systems and appliances, and soon lose interest in our current equipment. But what happens to our ‘old’ mobile phones, TVs, computers and other electronic equipment. Too often it goes straight to the landfill or incinerator, which is damaging to the environment and also wastes the great potential value the equipment still possesses. Is the UK doing enough to introduce a culture of reuse and repair for future generations?
The CIEMAP team at Nottingham Trent University has recently carried out a review of current waste electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) policies. We talked about attitudes to reuse and repair in the sector with policy makers, industry watchdogs, public bodies, waste collection and waste management organisations.
In 2014 waste EEE globally was estimated at 41.8 megatons (Mt) with 1.5Mt generated in the UK. Electronic devices are expensive to the environment in terms of the energy it takes to create them, use them and dispose of them. Despite efforts to make electrical products more energy efficient, shorter product lifetimes and the desire for the newest model often offsets the gains of efficiency. This pattern is not sustainable if greenhouse gas emission targets are to be met. The idea of making products that last longer and could be repaired when they malfunction is not often high on the list of suggestions. However, this approach would remove the need for much of the energy expended in the manufacture and disposal of more new products.
The policy perspective
Waste EEE policy has gone through various incarnations since the 1970s, with emphases changing as the decades passed. More weight was gradually placed on the need to dispose of waste EEE more carefully due to the toxic materials it may contain. There has also been recognition that various valuable metals and plastics from WEEE materials can be recycled for other uses. More recently the desirability of reusing whole appliances has been foregrounded in the ‘preparation for reuse’ guidelines. The policy focus is slowly moving towards a potential shift in attitudes to reuse and repair.
For a real shift to take place in our levels of reusing electronic products, there needs to be engagement from producers, waste management companies and local authorities. The WEEE Directive has tried to achieve buy-in from electronics companies by requiring them to take responsibility for disposal of their products when they are no longer of use to the buyer. This gives these producers a real incentive to take a keener interest in when and what needs to be disposed of at the end of a product’s life.
With turnover of small household appliances high and costs relatively low, many consumers will throw unwanted electric goods in the normal dustbin, meaning that items of potentially high reuse or recycling value go to landfills. While larger items such as washing machines are usually collected, it has been estimated that the 160,000 tonnes of EEE in regular waste collections was worth £220 million. And 23% of EEE taken to Household Waste Recycling Centres was immediately resaleable – or would be with minor repairs or refurbishment. This indicates a lack of awareness among consumers as to where and how to dispose of EEE, and of the potential value of things that are literally going in the bin.
For reuse and repair of electrical goods to increase substantially in the UK there are barriers that must be overcome. These include people’s mistrust of used equipment in terms of whether it will be functional, safe, and the stigma for some of owning second-hand goods. But the benefits of reuse could allow lower income households access to previously unaffordable technology whilst helping the environment at the same time.
Initial findings from our interviews showed that those in the waste industry felt that once electrical goods were in the system of waste, the current infrastructure meant that they were more likely to be recycled than reused due to the expertise and time needed to classify an item as reusable. Several interviewees felt that a benchmark standard of what was acceptable condition for reuse should be introduced to reduce genuine fears of such outcomes as fire or electric shock associated with used electrical goods.
Policy makers felt that more information on packaging could raise consumer awareness and that tax breaks for reuse organisations could be a practical measure to boost the amount of reuse taking place.
Next steps for reuse and repair
Clearly there are many practical steps that can be taken to increase the reuse of EEE items and extend their lifecycles. Amendment of waste collections to enable items to be collected for potential reuse before entering the general waste stream would be a step in the right direction. Raising consumer awareness as to the potential value, both financial and environmental of offering goods for reuse would be another. The potential is great to lessen the environmental impact of used EEE and for new opportunities to become available in this nascent industry.
This blog is based on based on Cole, C., Cooper, T. and Gnanapragasam, A., 2016. Extending product lifetimes through WEEE reuse and repair: opportunities and challenges in the UK. In: Electronics Goes Green 2016+ Conference, Berlin, Germany, 7-9 September 2016.
Christine Cole is a Research Fellow of the School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University and works within the EUED Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials and Product (CIEMAP).
A seminar on Product Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE) will be held at Nottingham Trent University on Tuesday 6th December. See the NTU website for more details.
Image credit: By AvWijk (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons