In-store take-back: plotting a course for the new regulations

In Industry Comment, Industry News On
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Matt Luntley, Commercial Account Manager at Valpak, looks at the changes coming to the WEEE take-back scheme from January 1st 2021 and explains how it will affect the electrical retail sector.

Every year in the UK, the average household throws away 20 electrical items. Although the value of the rare metals used to make these products adds up to £370 million, many of them lie forgotten in garages or drawers across the country.

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is usually recycled through local council services. From 1 January, however, the system is changing and, for the first time, many electrical retailers will have to offer product take-back in store. Many retailers, while keen to do the right thing, are unsure on how to proceed.

Why is the system changing?
Even though the 2005 WEEE legislation placed a requirement on retailers to take back customer products, 1,244 retailers took advantage of the Distributor Take-Back Scheme (DTS). The scheme funded local councils to collect WEEE on their behalf.

This system has helped to increase recycling infrastructure but in recent years, along with many EU countries, the UK has failed to meet its recycling target. Valpak-commissioned research shows that other countries have had success with in-store collection schemes, so the expectation is that making an extra 5,000 drop-off points available will help to boost customer participation and reignite recycling figures.

Who is affected?
The changes will affect more than 600 businesses which report more than £100,000 in e-sales and operate at least one physical store. Stores with over 400m2 in sales space for electrical goods must also take back very small WEEE without a sale taking place.

Another 600 companies – those which sell up to £100,000 of electrical products or operate solely online – will need to have systems in place by 2022. Non-compliance for either group will result in a minimum fine of £5,000, rising to an unlimited amount if the case reaches Crown Court.

As well as overseeing the DTS, Valpak also manages compliance and organises WEEE collections. Feedback from retailers shows that, while most are aware of their responsibilities, uncertainty over public appetite for the new regime, coupled with the exceptional challenges placed on us in 2020, has made it hard to plan ahead.

Which products fall within the legislation?
The requirements call for take-back on a like-for-like basis. In practice, this means a similar product of any brand, including heritage products. If, for example, a customer buys a new DVD player, the retailer is obliged to accept an old VHS system for recycling.

Cost implications
The legislation includes a need for retailers to communicate with customers but, even with this in place, one of the greatest issues is uncertainty around how popular the scheme will be. Retailers need to act now to prepare. However, until the scheme is in place, it is impossible to gauge how many products will arrive at stores, or even whether the pattern will be consistent.

Where possible, it helps to build-in flexibility. For example, at Valpak we are trying to ease the burden on obligated businesses by providing collections from stores. There is no one-fits-all solution so, as well as supplying our own collapsible pallet box, we also collect palletised products. Some customers are asking for scheduled collections but, without firm data on the volume of waste arriving at stores, many are choosing ad hoc collections instead.

Storing and moving hazardous electrical waste from site to site involves careful handling and rigorous record-keeping. Retailers with a number of stores have the option of recording collections at individual sites, or they can choose to back-haul items to a central location. The distribution centre option offers the lowest cost but, in comparison with collections at individual stores, it incurs a higher level of administrative time and expertise.

Records need to be kept for four years, and show due diligence at every stage of management. Some retailers plan to barcode items; others are considering manual checks. Either system is fine as long it clearly details who has collected the waste, where it has been sent, and what process the item has gone through for recycling. Businesses also need to check the regulations in each of the countries in which they operate, as the devolved nations have different requirements.

Ensuring that thousands of staff across the business are confident on how to record incoming items, and able to communicate with the public, involves an extensive training programme. The increase in labour time for multiple members of staff to receive, track and store waste products may affect decision-making on whether to process material in-store or at a distribution centre.

Space is an issue, particularly for in-town stores. But, while many retailers might prefer to organise collection from their larger, out of town sites, the legislation is clear that every store selling electrical goods must be equipped to collect them.

Decisions on where to site collection points will have an impact on costs – utilising prime floor space might encourage more customers to take part, but would also affect sales. Equally, providing unmanned bins might result in customers dumping unwanted electrical goods without buying a new product. Although some retailers are happy to take additional material, the preference seems to be for customers to hand redundant equipment to a member of staff, usually at Customer Services.

Why does it matter?
When not recycled, waste electricals pose a real threat to the environment. They are also made from valuable, often rare, resources that need to be preserved. Any move which makes recycling more accessible is good for the environment, good for the economy, and good for business.

For more information on WEEE take-back and collection, contact

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