British households will benefit from improved routes for recycling electronic goods from 2026, under government plans to have producers and retailers pay for household and in-store collections.
Consumers would be able to have electrical waste (e-waste) – from cables to toasters and power tools – collected from their homes or drop items off during a weekly shop, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said in a consultation published on Thursday. The ambition is for retailers, rather than the taxpayer, to pick up the tab for these new ways of disposing of defunct, often toxic products safely. The measures are due to come into force in two years’ time.
Almost half a billion small electrical items ended up in landfill last year, according to data from the not-for-profit Material Focus. This problem was particularly acute during Christmas, when 500 tonnes of Christmas lights were thrown away, the government said.
The latest proposals build on efforts to grapple with the issue that the UK helped develop as a member of the EU. This included the Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which came into effect in 2012. As with other waste-related rules they follow a principle that the producer of the waste will foot the bill for its disposal, which the UK and EU have followed in areas such as plastic packaging.
The EU this year adopted policy recommendations for member states to improve collection of recycled materials, although targets vary by country.
Post-Brexit, the UK has failed to keep pace with some EU regulatory efforts. The bloc is attempting to reduce e-waste with laws including a right to repair products, and requiring common chargers for phones (USB C) rather than Apple’s specialised lightning charger from 2024 onward. Cables, which are often hoarded as well as wrongly disposed of, are a major contributor to electronic waste.
A lack of effective recycling capacity in areas such as battery processing has also left the UK lagging behind European peers on a range of recycling rates. An OECD study of British data shows it failed to meet its recycling targets for household e-waste from 2017 to 2020. The review by the economic thinktank found “further efforts are needed” for the UK to prevent illegal dumping and export of electronic waste including bringing in a proposed mandatory waste tracking system.
The struggle to meet recycling targets comes despite Britain being one of the heaviest consumers of such items, according to a study by the consumer group U-Switch using data from the Global E-Waste Monitor report. The UK was second only to Norway for the amount of electrical waste it generates per person. Comparable data on electronic waste is patchy and needs improvement, MPs have warned.
Measures aimed at easing the problem of electronic waste now include requiring larger retailers to create “collection drop points for electrical items in-store” for free, and without the need to exchange this with a new purchase.
From 2026 onward, bricks-and-mortar retailers and online sellers would have to collect any broken or rejected large electrical goods including fridges or cookers when they are delivering a replacement product, Defra said.
The recycling minister, Robbie Moore, said: “Every year millions of household electricals across the UK end up in the bin rather than being correctly recycled or reused. This is a sheer waste of our natural resources and has to stop.”
He added: “We all have a drawer of old tech somewhere that we don’t know what to do with and our proposals will ensure these gadgets are easy to dispose of without the need for a trip to your local tip. Our plans will also drive the move to a more circular economy and create new jobs by making all recycling simpler.”