Irish consumers recycled a record number of electrical items last year, but the country’s largest e-waste scheme has warned that its unsustainable targets need to change to reflect a more circular economy.
Despite ever-rising public awareness and participation, targets do not count circular strategies already undertaken by businesses and consumers to prevent e-waste arising, including reuse and repair.
WEEE Ireland collected annual 18.7 million waste electrical items last year, the organisation’s report reveals.
Some 127,000 fridges and 205,000 TVs and monitors were recovered, as well as more than 2.3 million lightbulbs in a total takeback of 38,464 tons – 57% of the average goods sold over a three-year period.
The equivalent of more than 54 million used AA batteries were also saved from ending up in landfill, the report shows.
However, WEEE Ireland chief executive Leo Donovan warned that the changing nature of products means that the recycling versus sales targets which benchmark the European WEEE system are “no longer fit for purpose”.
“As a nation we are consuming more electrical goods than ever. The annual tonnage on the market rose by 50% in six years to 22kg a head last year, with 69 million units placed on the market in 2021,” he said.
“We need to recognise that many larger appliances don’t reach the end of life for many years through design and repair strategies.
“If we are buying more electronics, we need to adopt a one plug in, one plug out mantra as we do not have enough raw materials in the ground to keep up with growing global demand.
“Although our percentage takeback levels are far above the European mandatory average, the distance to our 65% takeback target is widening every year.
“The changing nature of products and their lifecycles mean that the simple linear weight system is no longer fit for purpose.
“If a laptop is repaired or reused it is not currently counted towards Ireland’s environmental performance.
“New home technologies such as solar PV panels and heat pumps, for example, are large tonnage items which now have a lifespan of more than 15-20 years thanks to innovation by the producers.
“They will not reach the end of life for recycling for decades and yet still count in today’s target measurements.
“The same has happened in lighting, where long-lasting LED bulbs are changing the nature of the landscape previously dominated by short-use incandescent bulbs.”
He added: “We need to rapidly incentivise the transformation across the industry to deliver a more circular and resource efficient economy.
“An all-actors approach is needed through documentation of the flows of all appliances and their materials by everyone involved in the value chain.”
In 2021, the equivalent of 231,179 tons of CO2 emissions were avoided by recycling e-waste through the WEEE Ireland scheme as opposed to landfilling. That is the equivalent of the annual carbon consumption of 4,624 hectares of trees.
An average of 94% of material was recovered for use again in manufacturing or final energy recovery. The 20,702 tons of iron recovered is enough to build almost three Eiffel Towers, Mr Donovan said.
The country’s largest electrical and battery recycling scheme also exceeded the EU’s 45% target for waste portable batteries in 2021 by 1% – with 1,085 tons collected, a 16% increase on 2020.
Fifty-seven percent of electrical waste was collected from retailer sites – up 233 tons on the previous year, and the seventh year of increases, while 28% was collected at local authority sites.