Helen Dickinson on retail: Retailers will bear onus of recycling

I recently spoke to a colleague who had been wondering how to dispose of his old VCR - it no longer worked and had been sitting around his flat longer than he cared to remember.

Disposing of electrical equipment isn't something one does every day, so he was wondering whether he should take it to a council tip, have it recycled somewhere or just chuck it in the attic.

In the end, he simply threw it out for the weekly rubbish collection.

Environmentalists will roll their eyes at his behaviour but, unfortunately, it's not uncommon.

Moves are now under way to combat the growing amount of electrical goods that is thrown away every year and many retailers will find themselves squarely at the forefront of this battle.

This is all due to the forthcoming piece of European legislation called the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. If it sounds familiar, that is because it has been 'forthcoming' for a couple of years, having initially been scheduled for implementation in 2004, but delayed until at least this summer to allow for further detailed preparations.

This is far from a straightforward topic. Broadly, the aim of the legislation is that producers and distributors will be obliged to pay for the take-back and recycling of the products they sell at the end of their functional lives. Retailers will be obliged to offer take-back facilities so that a customer who purchases a new product can hand over their old one for recycling. Obviously, those retailers which produce or distribute electrical goods will need to consider both sides of the equation.

Agreeing on the fine detail of such an initiative was never going to be easy.

Liaison with council authorities, registering with official recycling bodies, incurring the cost of upgrading recycling facilities were all issues which needed to be hammered out.

Many large retailers have signed up with official recycling bodies that will take responsibility for their in-store take-back processes on their behalf. Whether smaller, independent retailers can afford to follow suit is another question.

Most retailers agree that something needed to be done in this area. As a nation, we were already one of the worst in terms of the amount we throw away, and the recent commoditisation of many electrical products has dramatically increased that amount still further.

One report claims that we throw away 93m items a year - and how much more is discarded by businesses? The thinking could be that if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well - thus explaining the many rethinks the directive seems to have gone through.

When it does come into force, manufacturers, distributors and retailers alike will face a great challenge to reverse one of the British public's more ingrained characteristics - the impulse to throw things in the bin.

Some retailers will consider their job done by simply having their processes in place. But it remains to be seen how those that also make their products will feel about their quota obligation when trying to meet it puts them at the mercy of the man in the street.

If Joe Bloggs doesn't want to recycle his old TV, what can the producers do about it? This seems to be one point that has rarely been touched on in the material I have read so far.

Admittedly, the focus right now is on agreeing the logistics of operating the scheme when there are so many different parties involved. That is vitally important and has thrown up many sticking points.

It strikes me that the greatest challenge in this process is still to come and that any retailer or brand likely to be affected will find itself at the heart of a battle to re-educate a nation of throw-away consumers.

- Helen Dickinson is head of retail at KPMG.


- UK households throw away about 1m tonnes of electrical goods every year - the equivalent of 93m items - according to the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER). This equates to 16kg for each person.

- White goods account for 70% of the total; consumer goods such as TVs and hi-fis almost 13%; IT equipment 10%; and small appliances 8%.

- The European WEEE Directive has set a target of each person recycling 4kg of electrical goods every year.

- ICER estimates it would cost more than £83m a year to treat and recycle the domestic equipment likely to be collected under the directive.

- About 200m electrical items a year end up in general landfill sites, where toxic substances can leak out.

- Mobile phones contain mercury and cadmium. TVs and computer monitors contain lead oxide and barium.

- The average life span of a computer fell from four to six years in 1997 to two years in 2005.


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