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Electronic Goods: Sustainable Products

Volume 769: debated on Tuesday 23 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in reducing levels of unwanted electronic goods ending up in landfill through encouraging manufacturers to produce more sustainable products.

My Lords, we are working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme—WRAP—and industry stakeholders, including manufacturers, to make progress on reducing the level of electronic goods going to landfill by encouraging improvements in the durability of new electronic goods—for instance, through simple design changes—increasing the reuse of unwanted items that still work and promoting and getting better value from the recycling of electrical items.

I thank the Minister for that Answer, but I hope that he agrees that it is unsustainable that householders are spending some £800 a year on new electrical goods and throwing away earlier models, some of which are still working and many of which end up in overflowing landfill dumps. That is unnecessary waste and an environmental hazard. Some manufacturers have woken up to the challenge and are taking some of the steps that the Minister referred to, but should not the Government do more to set minimum standards and incentivise businesses so that product longevity and reuse become the norm rather than the exception, which is the case at the moment?

My Lords, I acknowledge the noble Baroness’s work when she was board member and trustee of WRAP. We certainly have a major task ahead. The Government support the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Sustainability Action Plan—ESAP. That agreement, led by WRAP, has 74 signatories, including global manufacturers, and represents 66% of UK TV sales, 55% of washing machine sales and 49% of fridge freezer sales. We believe that ESAP will have a significant impact in reducing electronic waste.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are people who recycle computers and such things? Some years ago I went with Lord Jenkin to see a man who had set up a successful business of that type. When recycled, the equipment was sent to Africa and countries that desperately wanted it. There was a time when that was what happened to our computers here. I have a printer that has packed up—of course, we are no longer given printers for home—and I have been told to just put it in the rubbish. Why is there not more encouragement to provide these bits of equipment that are still valuable to other parts of the world?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that such equipment is of value not only around the world but in this country. The whole point of ESAP is to ensure that products last longer and can be reused. This is the whole thrust of what we want to do. These are early beginnings, but there is great potential not only for the environment but for the economy too.

My Lords, nothing exemplifies our society’s throwaway attitude more than modern smartphones, which are almost impossible to get repaired at a reasonable cost, with batteries that are fixed in them and processors which are designed not to work after a couple of years. In contrast, there are now some social enterprises such as Fairphone, a Dutch company, that are producing phones using ethically sourced materials and in which every part can be replaced or upgraded when necessary. Does the Minister agree that such an initiative needs to be held up to the technology industry as a good example of the way forward to find sustainable products?

My Lords, I endorse all that the right reverend Prelate has said. The whole thrust of what we want is to achieve better design for waste prevention, reuse and recycling, of which Fairphone is a good example. If the Dutch can do it, so must we. More widely, the Waste Prevention Programme for England includes action on food waste, packaging, sustainable clothing and plastics, as well as electrical and electronic equipment. But there is so much more that we must do.

My Lords, what discussions, if any, have the Government had with Dame Ellen MacArthur about her circular economy and the excellent work that she is doing? Also, what work are the Government doing to discuss with young people investment in new skills in order to repair equipment and perhaps extract valuable metals such as gold, silver and all the others that are used in such goods?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has hit on some important points. One of the key features coming out of the work that WRAP is doing is that there is around a tonne of gold in landfill sites that comes from electronic equipment. We want to get a lot of these important materials back. These are all areas where innovative work will be done. Young people and the innovations that come through them will be tremendously important, so again I endorse what the noble Baroness is encouraging.

My Lords, can the Minister update the House on progress on implementing the recommendations on individual producer responsibility for waste electrical goods made by the working group set up by BIS in 2012?

My Lords, while the working group decided that it was not the right time to introduce a system of individual producer responsibility, the introduction of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations 2013, known as WEEE, aimed to minimise the amount of waste by setting targets for the collection, recovery and recycling of specific WEEE categories.