Peers call for firms to take responsibility for their own e-waste

A House of Lords Committee has urged the government to tackle the thorny issue of ‘individual producer responsibility’ for waste products. It has also been highly critical of the government’s efforts to cut business waste.

The government should introduce individual producer responsibility (IPR) for some electronic and electrical goods, according to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee.

The committee comes to the conclusion in a report on waste reduction, issued in August.1 It launched an inquiry into the issue last October, focusing on whether products can be designed to produce less waste (ENDS Report 393, p 56 ).

Existing producer responsibility legislation - such as that to manage packaging waste, and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) - has increased recycling but led to few improvements in the actual design of products, the committee’s report says. "The extent to which these regulations have really altered the mindset of businesses is dubious."

Introducing individual producer responsibility could change this, it says. IPR involves firms paying for the recycling and disposal of their own products, rather than an entire class of products as part of an industry group. Such a system would encourage companies to reduce the amount of material in their products and make them easier to recycle. For IPR to work, a producer must know how much of its products enter the waste stream each year and their end-of-life costs.

Companies including Braun, Electrolux, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia and Samsung have all made their support for IPR public.

However, electrical goods manufacturers and waste firms have argued over whether IPR can be implemented (ENDS Report 396, p 19 ). Some have suggested companies would have to track their products using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Giving evidence to the committee late last year, Tony Pedrotti, head of sustainability at the Business Department (BERR), said there was nothing in current regulations to prevent manufacturers putting IPR systems in place, "but the reason they have not done it is that it’s virtually impossible" (ENDS Report 396, pp 21 ).

The Lords’ report does not offer any ready solutions. "Implementing IPR will be a long and complex process," it says, "but will be crucial in establishing the direct responsibility necessary to encourage manufacturers to reduce their waste. The… government should take the lead in implementing true IPR… at the very least… for those products for which industry requests it."

Most of the remainder of the report focuses on more general measures needed to improve the management of waste from businesses.

Local authority waste targets should be changed to encourage them to offer recycling services to businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), it says. Councils have targets to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste they send to landfill. This discourages them from offering waste collection to firms because that increases the amount of biodegradable waste they collect. The report does not suggest how these targets - a requirement under the EU landfill Directive - could be changed.

Neighbouring local authorities should also coordinate the recycling services they provide so that businesses can "invest in long-term waste reduction strategies and experience economies of scale". The current wide range of recycling services offered by councils makes it "virtually impossible" for firms "to assess the end-of-life consequences" of their products.

The committee is "extremely disappointed" with this year’s government funding cuts to business waste schemes such as Envirowise and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) (ENDS Report 398, p 4 ). These bodies are most likely to deliver advice on waste reduction to SMEs, it says. "We are at a loss to understand the government’s reasoning [for the cuts]." The government should return to ring fencing a proportion of landfill tax receipts to spend on waste reduction initiatives, it adds.

One of the main ways waste from products could be reduced is to encourage consumers to retain goods for longer and repair them. "Businesses cannot be expected to promote something which leads to a reduction in profits," the report says, so the government should lower VAT for repairs to encourage such action.

The Committee’s report also criticises the government’s current lack of data on waste arisings. "Targets and policies to reduce waste are meaningless if they are not based upon a thorough understanding of the waste streams involved," it says, before calling for comprehensive surveys of UK waste streams.

At an inquiry hearing earlier this year, ministers from the Environment Department (DEFRA) said they would not endorse such surveys due to their "immense costs" (ENDS Report 401, pp 62-63 ). However, a recent report for DEFRA by consultants AEA Energy and Environment on the data-gathering required for monitoring the Department’s waste strategy, calls this into question.2 It recommends that DEFRA introduces an "all-embracing electronic data recording system", which would keep a record of all waste movements.