Tech giants should take more responsibility to reduce electrical waste, MP report says

A box of old electrical items

Evidence from an expert at Lancaster University Management School was included in a report published by the House of Common’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) last week.

The new Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy report suggests companies such as Amazon and Apple must take more responsibility to help collect, recycle and repair products which are contributing to 155,000 tonnes of waste electricals ending up in UK household bins every year.

Dr Alison Stowell, Associate Director for the Pentland Centre for Sustainability in Business and an expert in electronic waste, submitted both written and verbal evidence to the EAC earlier this year. Her contributions are cited in the report, highlighting problems associated with a lack of recycled materials in electrical and electronic manufacture as well as the high cost of repairs, resulting in consumers repeatedly buying new electricals.

The Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy report finds that the UK is lagging behind other nations in embedding a circular economy of ‘use, reuse and recycle’ for small electronics, which has a vital role in protecting the environment. It puts forward 27 recommendations to reduce the vast quantity of electronic waste which, when not properly treated, releases toxic chemicals that damage human and animal health.

Dr Stowell said: “I welcome the recommendations in the report which set out positive steps the UK Government can take to tackle the challenges attached with managing the life of our electronics. Prioritising greater reuse and repair not only presents opportunities to reduce waste, but also pathways to employment and further recognition for those working in the repair space, so this is heartening to read.” 

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.”

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. They also reveal that tech companies such as Apple have been found to glue and solder together internal components to make any repair almost impossible.

 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. 

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