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Government to consider requiring online marketplaces to collect old electronics from customers

26 February 2021

The Government could require online retailers and marketplaces to collect old electronics from consumers to ensure there is an equal obligation for the collection of e-waste as physical retailers. The move could make it easier for consumers to recycle old electrical items, while ensuring retailers are not disadvantaged compared to online competitors.

The commitment is within the Government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on Electronic Waste in the Circular Economy.

The Government is also consulting on rolling out kerbside collection for e-waste around the country. The Committee welcomes the acknowledgment that more needs to be done to collect small electrical items. In addition to the Government considering kerbside collections, it will also explore ways to enhance retailer obligations to provide more collection points for e-waste for consumers.

The Government outlined that provisions within the Environment Bill could improve consumer awareness of the repairability and recyclability of products. For example, companies could be mandated to label products with what components are recycled and how repairable the item is. This could in turn help consumers make more sustainable purchasing decisions and reduce their consumption of resources.

However, the Committee is disappointed that the Government has rejected the Committee’s recommendation to reduce VAT on repair services. The Government argued that any resultant loss in tax revenue would have to be balanced elsewhere. The Committee believes that the measures would have reduced the financial barriers to the repair of electrical items.

The Government has also rejected a recommendation for targets on the recovery of critical raw materials and retaining value from old electronics. During the inquiry, the Committee heard that a continued focus on weight-based targets can overlook the valuable materials that weigh less. Many of these materials and components, such as gold, tungsten, indium, lithium and cobalt, are particularly important to the UK’s low-carbon ambitions as they are used in wind turbines, solar panels and car batteries. The Committee warned in its report that the global supply of these materials is unstable and at current rates they may eventually run out, so retrieving them for re-use from e-waste is crucial.

Chair's comment

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

“Levelling the playing field for online giants and physical retailers in the take-back of e-waste is important if we are to cut down on the amount of e-waste disposed of incorrectly. We need to make urgent improvements to the reuse and recycling of such products, and I am pleased that the Government has recognised the role online retailers and marketplaces should play in taking increased responsibility for the e-waste streams they help generate.

“It is also reassuring that the Environment Bill could pave the way for better labelling on the recyclability of products and informing consumers what components have been recycled. As the Bill’s passage through Parliament has been delayed, it may be some time until we see products on shelves giving this detail. It is important that the Government keeps up the pace towards this goal.

“The Government has failed to acknowledge the importance of extracting precious metals from old electronics, dismissing the Committee’s finding that weight-based targets are insufficient to ensure the extraction of many of these light metals. These metals, including tungsten and cobalt, are crucial in the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels – and their continued supply is therefore vital to making net zero Britain a reality. But we are at serious risk of creating supply shortages if we fail to retrieve these rare materials from old devices.

“Our report made the case for quick and decisive action to tackle the e-waste tsunami. While we are pleased that some of our recommendations are being taken forward, the Government seems to ignore the urgency of getting a grip on the growing e-waste problem.”

Further information

Image: Gabriel Sainhas/Tyler Allicock