UK households and businesses are producing 1.45 million tonnes of electrical waste per annum - new research

An image of a man led down entwined with cables and surrounded by electrical appliances © Gregg Segal
DJ Downsy taken by Gregg Segal

Lancaster University research, commissioned by Material Focus, helps industry identify where action can be taken to improve UK reuse and recycling rates for electricals. 

Today, Material Focus has launched new research that provides a complete and in-depth overview of the amount of electricals sold and electrical waste generated in the UK, across households and businesses.  Electrical waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and in the world, with discarded or hoarded household electricals estimated to cost the UK economy over £370 million per year of lost valuable raw materials such as gold, copper, aluminium and steel.

The research “Electrical Waste - challenges and opportunities”, conducted by Lancaster University researchers, Repic, Valpak, and led by sustainability experts Anthesis, provides the latest robust inventory of flow of electrical products and waste in the UK. The research also looked at the volumes of electrical waste that is being put to good use through reuse or recycling.  The main purpose of the research was to help the industry identify where action can be taken to improve UK reuse and recycling rates for electricals, and to support overall recycling, and re-use target setting.

Key findings of the research have identified that:

●      A total of 1.65 million tonnes of electricals were sold (put on the market) in the UK. 

●      206,000 tonnes are new electricals not replacing old items. 

●      1.45 million tonnes of electrical waste was available to be re-used or recycled, including:

  •       653,000 tonnes processed for recycling by approved and authorised treatment providers.
  •       82,000 tonnes of household electricals processed by reuse organisations.
  •       180,000 tonnes of electricals processed by commercial reusers and IT asset management companies. 

●      At least 500,000 tonnes of waste electricals were lost through being thrown away, hoarded, stolen, or illegally exported, including:

  •     155,000 tonnes thrown away in domestic bins and being incinerated or landfilled
  •      145,000 tonnes of commercial electrical waste thrown away in skips with no evidence that it is recycled
  •       114,000 tonnes stolen (LDA, mixed WEEE, displays and compressor units from refrigeration)
  •       32,000 tonnes illegally exported 


A key finding of the research has highlighted that for a variety of reasons, not all new sales of electricals are replacing old items like for like. Around 206,000 tonnes of additional large and small electricals are being used per annum. For example, UK householders and businesses are increasingly owning more tech and new types of equipment are being launched such as smart speakers. 

Complementary research, Hidden Treasures recently launched by Material Focus estimated that UK householders were hoarding 527 million small electrical items, the equivalent of 190,000 tonnes, accumulated over around 5 years. The research also found that 2.8 million tonnes of COemission could be saved, equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road if all our old small electricals that are being thrown away or hoarded were recycled. 

Dr Dmitry Yumashev, Senior Researcher at Lancaster University said: “As is the case with all sustainability challenges, we need to understand the scale and nature of the problem in order to identify the best available solutions. The new study “Electrical Waste - challenges and opportunities” does exactly that. Lancaster University played a central role in this major new assessment of unreported flows of used and discarded electricals in the UK, which bypass the official recycling system. To shed light on some of these flows, our team worked with the most comprehensive pool of recent published and unpublished surveys of household electricals to date, combined with cutting-edge online data mining algorithms and state-of-the-art models of electronic waste generation.” 

Scott Butler, Executive Director, Material Focus said: “The UK is throwing away, or hoarding, at least half a million tonnes of valuable materials that could be reused or recycled. More needs to be done to tackle this and ensure that we don’t waste these valuable materials that are being thrown away, whether it's incorrectly disposed of, hoarded, illegally exported or stolen. The focus of our recently launched ‘Recycle Your Electricals’ campaign is to encourage more UK householders to stop throwing away and instead recycle or reuse their small unwanted electricals.  In addition we will continue to invest in research to help the industry and policy makers understand more about where and how these household and business electricals are being lost, and we hope that the research can inform future actions to prevent this loss.”  

Mark Sayers, Senior Consultant, Anthesis said: “The research, “Electrical Waste - challenges and opportunities” provides the most comprehensive and robust view of the amount of electricals sold and waste generated in the UK. Anthesis and our partners Lancaster University, Repic and Valpak undertook a comprehensive and robust inventory ofthe multiple stages that electricals flow throughout the economy. Data was collected through primary research including surveys and sampling of household rubbish, stakeholder engagement, mathematical modelling and by reviewing the relevant literature. The research will be invaluable to policy makers and industry stakeholders alike to identify  where electricals ultimately go and to improve recycling in this important waste stream.”

Material Focus  is making recycling small old electricals easier than ever before by launching an information hub for the UK, and making it easier for an additional 4.1 million households to access recycling facilities. The campaign is encouraging more UK householders to gather up their old unwanted electricals and then put them in a bag ready to be recycled once lockdown has lifted and local recycling facilities have reopened. A new postcode finder has launched with details of over 2,000 recycling, repair and reuse points, with new collection and drop-off points being added to the site on an ongoing basis.

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