Criticisms were made over the “disparity” in responsibilities for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) between physical and online retailers yesterday (17 September).
The comments were made at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) session, the committee’s last in its inquiry into electronic waste and the circular economy.
By the end of this year, physical retailers who have a turnover for sales of electronic equipment in excess of £100,000 will be expected to take back WEEE instore (see letsrecycle.com story). Online retailers have been given a derogation for a further year.
Committee member, Jerome Mayhew, Conservative MP for Broadland, said that at a previous session of the EAC, Robert ter Kuile, worldwide director of environmental affairs at Amazon, had given “particularly unconvincing arguments as to why it would inappropriate to require Amazon to be the e-waste collector for the products they sell”.
“We’re trying to put the onus on the producer”
In response, recycling minister Rebecca Pow said in defence of current legislation: “Many of these products are made in other parts of the world, but they’re not disposed where they’re made, they’re disposed here.
“It’s about where you put the onus, and we’re trying to put the onus on the producer, but that may to be difficult online. It may have to go on to the platform, but it’s a new area.”
Alongside Mrs Pow, evidence was given to the committee by Chris Preston, deputy director of waste and recycling at Defra, and Malcolm Lythgo, deputy director of waste enforcement and regulation at the Environment Agency.
Philip Dunne, chair of the EAC, said the findings of the inquiry would be published next month or the beginning of the following month.
Alex Sobel, Labour MP for Leeds North West, raised the issue of a supposed ‘loophole’, whereby electrical items exported for reuse and repair were not necessarily reused or repaired. He asked if the government had plans to end this type of waste export from England.
Mr Preston said: “In terms of shipping things abroad for reuse and recycling, that’s entirely allowed as part of the regulations. It’s not an illegal thing and nor has that been banned, but you do have to make sure it is going to a facility and it is being prepared for reuse.
“It is wholly unacceptable and illegal to class that as waste electrical equipment that is going for resale when in fact it’s just broken waste that people are trying to get rid of.”
There was some discrepancy between the figures relating to WEEE exports held by Mrs Pow and those held by the EAC, which were sourced from the Basel Action Network (BAN). Mr Preston told the committee 2,000 tonnes of WEEE had been exported from the UK last year. Mr Sobel responded by saying he understood it to have been 209,000.
Seeking to highlight the harmful impact of European exports of WEEE, Labour MP for Brent North Barry Gardiner quoted a BAN report. He said: “Some of the highest levels of brominated dioxides ever recorded in the world were at the dump site in Ghana, where so much of the European electronic waste ends up and where it is burnt.
“They tested the chicken eggs in the slum there, where the workers are living among these chickens, eating the meat and the eggs, and every day they are poisoning themselves, not only through what they breathe but what they eat as well.”
One company which did not give evidence to the committee was tech giant Apple.
“As Apple unveils its next generation of gadgets, my Committee continues to wait for answers on what the company is doing to tackle its environmental footprint”
The EAC invited Apple to participate in its inquiry and to appear before MPs on 16 July. The company cancelled its appearance at short notice, the EAC said.
EAC chairman Mr Dunne wrote to Tim Cook, chief executive at Apple, on 4 August, highlighting concerns about the social and environmental footprint of the electronics industry. The EAC says he is yet to receive a “substantive” reply.
Mr Dunne said: “Apple has made more than two billion iPhones – a phone for every person in the whole of Africa and Europe. As Apple unveils its next generation of gadgets, my Committee continues to wait for answers on what the company is doing to tackle its environmental footprint.”
He added: “Apple appears to have a positive story to tell regarding its efforts on climate change. But its unwillingness to answer my Committee’s questions has led us to believe its environmental obligations are not taken seriously enough.”
WEEE will be on the agenda at the Virtual WEEE Conference, to be held on 30 September. More information can be found here.