Feature: The role of technology retailers in tackling the UK’s e-waste problem

Gavin Miller, CEO, Asurion Europe looks at e-waste in the UK.


The UN regards electronic waste (e-waste) as the world’s fastest-growing domestic and commercial waste stream, with waste generation vastly outstripping expansions to recovery systems, and repair and recycling infrastructure. The UK is a significant contributor, generating the second-highest amount of e-waste per person in the world, with each household hoarding an average of 20 unused electronic items.

Our recent study looks at the factors getting in the way of people recycling their electronic products. In fact, one in five UK consumers (21%) say they don’t know how to dispose of e-waste responsibly and almost a quarter (23%) find recycling unused electronics confusing or inconvenient.

But in the waste hierarchy, the top priority is to prevent waste in the first place (‘Reduce’). When waste is created, the priority is to prepare it for reuse (‘Reuse’), then to recycle it (‘Recycle’), then to recover it (‘Recover’) – that is, through energy production. It should only be disposed of – i.e., sent to landfill – when these options have been exhausted.

The study therefore quantifies how much UK consumers could save – both for their pockets and the planet – by reducing their e-waste and extending the life of their devices by just one extra year.

Savings from reducing e-waste

The research found that the average UK consumer could be saving over £400 by investing in support cover and extending the lifespan of their smartphone, tablet or laptop by one more year – remembering to trade in their devices at the end of that year.

Based on this calculation, the UK population could bank over £18.8 billion by prolonging the lifetime of devices for an additional year. This is equivalent to ten times the Government’s latest home energy efficiency boosting grant, or just a little less than the Chancellor’s 2023 funding announcement for carbon capture, utilisation and storage.

Our study also shows that, the same actions could reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing replacement devices by an average of 99kg of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per person – or over 4.5 million tonnes of CO2e across the UK. That’s equivalent to 0.9% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Retailer obligations

As we approach this year’s International E-Waste Day on the 14th of October, and mark Recycling Week in the same month, it’s an opportunity to look at how the UK’s e-waste problem can be tackled and how retailers can play their part.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, transposed into UK law in 2007, obliges manufacturers to take financial responsibility for the products they bring to market, specifically when they are discarded. Under section 42 of the regulations, distributors and retailers are also required, to provide a way for customers to dispose of their old devices when they buy a new version of the same type of device.

Rules apply regardless of how the products are sold – remotely or in-store. Retailers with a sales footprint of over four hundred square metres must collect or ‘take back’ small WEEE items free of charge, whether or not the customer buys a new one. Failure to comply can result in a £5,000 fine at a magistrates’ court, or an unlimited fine from a Crown Court.

Extending device life vs increasing product sales

However, for most independent retailers, there’s a far greater opportunity than simply complying with the law. Most devices will have some level of residual value – even if just for the recovery of materials from the device, like lithium, tungsten and manganese. So, retailers can delight their customers by pointing them towards a trade-in service, which will actually return a sum of money in most cases.

That’s likely to help keep the retailer’s image high in mind and appreciated by the customer. Nonetheless there remains a tricky commercial balance for independent retailers over extending device life. Although maintenance services provide customers with an opportunity to extend their device lifecycle, on the other hand, it delays a new product sale..

Smart retailers tend to rate customer loyalty over short-term device churn. In other words, the lifetime value of a loyal customer is a far greater prize than a marginally quicker sale. And in a world where consumers highly rate the environmental credentials of their chosen suppliers, the argument for helping customers prolong the life of their product is increasingly compelling.

Moving with the times

In fact, 36% of consumers in the UK say they are often or always choosing a brand with good sustainability credentials. A report by American Express found that even in the context of a cost of living crisis, 65% of UK consumers think about the environmental impact of the items they buy, while 41% say they prefer to shop locally rather than online, reducing the carbon footprint associated with digital deliveries. Additionally, 64% said they now prefer to shop from pre-loved retailers, whether in-store or online, while 41% said that an ‘end-of-line’ scheme to help them recycle goods would make them spend more with a retailer.

This suggests that if consumers can be educated on how to prolong the life of their electronic devices and the environmental benefits for doing so, there is a real opportunity for retailers to support them in this endeavour. In this way, it becomes less about just selling products and more about retailers adapting their offering to encompass advice and support on device care, maintenance and, eventually, recycling. By adapting to provide these services as well as the products themselves, retailers can ensure that they remain relevant and competitive in the coming years.

What can tech retailers do to reduce e-waste?

 Reducing e-waste will require a shift in focus from promoting continuous upgrades to the latest models to instead helping consumers prolong the life of their devices.

As a first step, retailers can look to address some of the key obstacles that consumers identify to repairing their products. Studies shows that of those who would not repair their device, half (53%) cite cost as a reason. Others say they wouldn’t repair a product that’s already old (53%), or they are discouraged by the general inconvenience (27%), not having a device during the repair (16%) and the time it would take to get it fixed (12%).

Retailers can therefore take action by regularly sharing tips on prolonging device lifetime with customers, providing affordable and flexible device support and protection options, and facilitating and encouraging device repair over replacement.

Solutions such as a home tech protection plan covering multiple devices is cost-effective in the long-term, and often includes maintenance, installation, optimisation, repair and trade-in options for each individual device. Having all of these options in one place makes life easy for the consumer and promotes ongoing loyalty to the retailer.

When it does come to replacing devices, offering simple, incentivised solutions for device recycling will certainly help, since misunderstanding and confusion over how electronic items can be recycled are prominent among consumers.

Sharing the burden

E-waste is a huge problem that is not going to go away in the short term. It’s time for the technology retail industry as a whole to rethink how they engage with consumers and, in turn, how they can contribute to reducing e-waste.

With sustainability at the forefront of consumers’ minds, retailers that bury their heads in the sand and continue to focus on product churn are likely to find themselves left behind in the progress towards a circular economy.

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