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Online giants and tech powerhouses in eye of the storm as UK battles e-waste tsunami

26 November 2020

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today published its report on Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy, having found that the UK is lagging behind other nations in embedding a circular economy of use, reuse and recycle for small electronics, which has vital role in protecting the environment.

The manufacturing of new electronics from raw materials can cause huge human and environmental damage and releases significant carbon emissions, whilst electronic waste, when not properly treated, releases toxic chemicals that damage human and animal health.

The concept of use, reuse and recycle is well understood among bricks and mortar retailers which collect old electronics. But for all their protestations of claimed sustainability, major online retailers and marketplaces such as Amazon have so far avoided playing their part in the circular economy by not collecting or recycling electronics in the way other organisations have to.

Given the astronomical growth in sales by online vendors, particularly this year during the coronavirus pandemic, the EAC calls for online marketplaces to collect products and pay for their recycling to create a level playing field with physical retailers and producers that are not selling on their platforms.

It is not just online marketplaces failing to take responsibility for the environmental impact of electronics.

Tech companies such as Apple have been found to glue and solder together internal components making any repair nearly impossible. The EAC found that consumers do not have control over the products they own; they cannot take components out to repair themselves and they cannot access manuals on how issues can be fixed. Instead the charges proposed for repair by Apple in particular can be so expensive it is more economical to replace the item completely.

The committee recommends that the Government should enshrine the right to repair in law, and reduce VAT on repair services, as is the case in many EU countries. This could be an important incentive to boost a repair culture across the UK.

Addressing unnecessary electronic waste and making products built to last can also help ensure future supply of precious metals.

The availability of precious metals such as gold, tungsten, lithium and cobalt – often found in small electronics – are vital to the low-carbon economy as they are needed in wind turbines, solar panels and car batteries. The global supply of these materials will run out, and exporting, incinerating or sending old electronics to landfill could mean they are lost forever. The Government should therefore invest in high quality recycling methods that can retrieve these materials.

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:

"For too long companies like Amazon and Apple have been dodging their environmental responsibilities for the products they sell.

Too many devices sold and made by these companies have a limited, and sometimes decreasing, lifespan and end up in bins, eventually going to landfill or incineration. There is no chance of precious metals being retrieved, which could quickly become a huge problem as the rare and disappearing materials are crucial for renewable energy such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric car batteries.

Repairing and recycling must become commonplace for electronics. In our report today, we have set out how the Government can achieve a circular economy for electronics – from VAT changes making repair more attractive, to the onus being placed on online marketplaces when delivering new product to collect old items they are replacing.

We cannot as a society continue to ignore the e-waste problem like so many of us have done for years – I plead guilty to keeping old mobile phones and chargers stuck at the back of the desk drawer gathering dust. We must take action if we are to protect the environment for years to come. I am going to change my behaviour. This report calls on us all to change too."

Further information

Image: Parliamentary copyright