Government must hold technology companies to account on e-waste

AJ Gonzalez | December 2, 2020

Computer Weekly, Sebastian Klovig Skelton ,

MPs urge UK government and global technology companies to deal with ‘tsunami of electronic waste’, which is throwing away valuable resources vital for building a sustainable future

Government action is needed to ensure multinational technology companies such as Amazon and Apple take more responsibility for helping to collect, recycle and repair their products, which are contributing to the 155,000 tonnes of electronic waste being thrown away in the UK each year, MPs argue.

An investigation by the Environmental Audit Committee(EAC) has found that the UK is lagging behind other nations in embedding a circular economy of use, reuse and recycle for small electronics. It said that despite producing the second highest amount of e-waste in the world behind Norway, the vast majority of this waste is not being properly collected and treated.

“A lot of it goes to landfill, incineration or is dumped overseas. Under current laws, producers and retailers of electronics are responsible for this waste, yet they are clearly not fulfilling that responsibility,” wrote the EAC, noting that roughly 40% of the UK’s e-waste is sent abroad, which “is illegal”.

It added that while the concept of use, reuse and recycle is “well understood among bricks and mortar retailers”, technology companies running online marketplaces are not playing their part.

“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,” it said.

“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.”

The EAC also found that actual producers of electronic products, such as Apple, are intentionally shortening the life span of their products, while also “making any repair nearly impossible” by gluing and soldering together internal components, leaving consumers with little control over the devices 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 that it is more economical to replace the item completely,” it said.

According to Philip Dunne, MP and chairman of the EAC, the above practices mean there is no chance of precious metals – such as gold, tungsten, lithium and cobalt – being retrieved, which are crucial for developing renewable energy resources such as solar panels, wind turbines and electronic car batteries.

The charges proposed for repair by Apple in particular can be so expensive that it is more economical to replace the item completely

Environmental Audit Committee report

“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,” he said.

“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.”

The EAC has made a number of recommendations to government on how to solve these problems, which includes enshrining the “right to repair” in law; reducing VAT on the repair of electrical and electronic products, as takes place in other European countries; forcing all producers to pay for the collection and recycling of their products; and banning the practice of intentionally shortening the lifespan of products through planned obsolescence.

It added that the UK government, though the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Defra), should also set “ambitious long-term targets” for dealing with e-waste, which should “focus on reducing resource consumption the environmental impact of the industry, and on capturing and retaining value including critical raw materials”.

In response to the EAC investigation, an Amazon spokesperson said the e-commerce giant has supported the recycling of over 10,000 tonnes of e-waste over the past decade, adding that “Amazon is committed to minimising waste and helping our customers to reuse, repair and recycle their products.”

An Apple spokesperson said the company “surprised and disappointed” with the EAC investigation’s findings, which they claimed do not “reflect any of Apple’s efforts to conserve resources and protect the planet we all share”.

“There are more options for customers to trade in, recycle and get safe, quality repairs than ever before, and our latest Apple Watch, iPad, and iPhone lineup all use recycled materials across key components,” said the spokesperson.

“We will continue to work with Parliament and the government to document Apple’s industry-leading commitments and to support our common effort to leave a clean economy and a healthy planet for the next generation.”

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