As the commercial and household use of electrical and electronic equipment continues to grow, so too does the mass of electrical waste (or e-waste) that is left behind when these products reach the end of their useful life.
E-waste encompasses a myriad of 'unseen' metals, semi-metals and chemical compounds that are found inside circuit boards, wires and electrical connections
If not handled correctly, chemicals such as cadmium, barium, lithium, lead, mercury and beryllium can all present a significant health risk through direct contact, through the inhalation of toxic fumes or via the build up of toxins in water, soil and food products.
In the UK alone, an estimated two-million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is discarded by companies and householders every year. And the amount of e-waste discarded worldwide annually is believed to be between 30 and 40 million tonnes.
Under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations, any business that places electrical or electronic products on the UK market is required to take responsibility for reducing material use, enhancing recyclability and ensuring that its e-waste is correctly disposed of.
The WEEE Regulations 2013, which came into effect in January 2014, listed what was referred to as a 'closed scope' of electrical and electronic products which covered thirteen broad categories:
- Large household appliances (cookers, fridges, washing machines)
- Small household appliances (clocks, toasters, vacuum cleaners, irons)
- IT and telecommunications equipment (computers, copiers, phones)
- Consumer electronics (radios, camcorders, hi-fi, musical instruments)
- Lighting (fluorescent tubes, high intensity discharge lamps)
- Electronic and electrical tools (electric lawnmowers, drills, saws)
- Toys, leisure and sports equipment (games consoles, running machines)
- Medical devices (cardiology equipment, dialysis machines, medical freezers)
- Monitoring and control equipment (thermostats, smoke detectors, heating regulators)
- Automatic dispensers (cash dispensers, hot drinks dispensers)
- Appliances containing refrigerants (fridges, freezers, air-conditioners and fire suppression systems)
- LED light sources and Gas Discharge Lamps
- Photovoltaic (PV) panels (solar panels, solar arrays)
Until this year, if an electronic or electrical product was not specifically referred to in any one of the categories listed above, then it was considered to be 'out of scope' and as such exempt from the regulations.
As of January 2019, however, changes to the WEEE legislation at European level mean that all electrical items are considered to be 'open scope' unless they are proved to either be covered by a specific exemption or to not meet the definition of EEE.
Additions to the EEE product list
Products that have come into scope since January 2019 include:
- Plugs, sockets, switches and dimmers
- Fuse boxes, circuit breakers and junction boxes that are supplied as finished products
- Energy management systems used to control temperature or lighting levels in industrial buildings
- Water taps with automatic sensors or additional safety features
- Air conditioning units and integrated air filtering and extraction systems
- Furniture that includes a fundamental electrical function such as electrically reclining chairs, massage chairs and tables with wireless charging units (but not including furniture for medical purposes)
- Wearable tech - such as t-shirts with heart rate monitors
And which items are exempt?
Products that remain exempt or are excluded from the scope of EEE include:
- Electrical or electronic items that have been designed for the purposes of protecting a country's security such as military arms or munitions
- Products that have been designed and installed into any form of 'out of scope' equipment such as a satellite navigation systems installed in a plane, boat or car
- Implantable medical devices
- Products designed only for research and development (R&D) and sold B2B
- Large-scale stationary industrial tools and assemblies of equipment used in industrial manufacturing or R&D facilities
Who is responsible for ensuring WEEE compliance?
Any company that manufactures, imports or resells electrical or electronic products under their own brand is considered to be a 'producer' of EEE and must ensure the correct collection, treatment, reuse, recovery, recycling and environmentally sound disposal of their electrical waste products.
All manufacturers who are producing EEE have a responsibility to manage their waste and help protect people, the environment and our natural resources.
Companies that are placing less than 5 tonnes of EEE on the market each year can register direct with their environmental regulator as a 'small producer'.
Producers who place in excess of 5 tonnes on the market per year are required to join a producer compliance scheme or PCS which in turn will take control of the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally safe disposal of the WEEE.
For further clarification, the UK Environment Agency has created a useful guide to electrical and electronic equipment covered by the WEEE Regulations to help you determine whether your products are included or exempt.