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UK MPs criticise lacklustre tech sustainability efforts

Someone repairing a smartphone

A new report from UK Members of Parliament (MPs) has criticised Amazon and other online retailers for not pulling their weight when it comes to collecting electronic waste from consumers. They said that high streets are under “severe pressure” and new laws due in 2021 will only entrench online retailers’ unfair position.

The report highlighted that the UK is currently the second-highest contributor of electronic waste driven by relentless consumption of new tech products, the inability to repair some devices, and relatively short software support. To add to the problems, a lot of this waste is going to landfill, being incinerated or dumped overseas which is sometimes illegal.

According to the report, even if you send it off for recycling, the device still may be processed incorrectly:

“Most of us don’t know what to do with our electronic waste. Even on the rare occasions that we do recycle it, it is not getting treated properly. Our recycling systems shred and incinerate it, wasting the rare, precious resources they contain—resources vital to our low-carbon future, our healthcare technologies and our defence systems. These valuable rare resources are already the subject of geopolitical struggles. Some are so rare that they are predicted to run out completely by the end of the century”

The report highlighted a wide range of solutions to address these issues, they include:

  • Online retailers must allow customers to send back electronic waste;
  • Online marketplaces should ensure all electrical equipment sold on their website is compliant with the law and producers should pay the same responsibility fees they pay to sell offline;
  • The government should ban the practice of intentionally shortening the lifespan of products through planned obsolescence;
  • Devices should be labelled with their expected lifetime including how long they will receive software updates, how repairable they are, whether spare parts of accessible and affordable and how accessible repair manuals are;
  • They said the government should give people the right to repair electronic products in law which would require producers to supply repair manuals, affordable spare parts for products, and for products to be designed so that repair is not prevented through limited access to physical or software tools;
  • VAT charged on repairs should be reduced to make the option more attractive to customers;
  • Manufacturers should ensure their products are recyclable and dismantlable by waste treatment operators. They should provide recyclers with information about the materials and quantities of the materials used in the products. To help achieve these, the government should offer incentives and fast-track the national material datahub to help monitor the movements of rare materials critical to our healthcare, defence, and low-carbon technologies;
  • The government should spend more money on high-quality recycling methods that ensure that rare materials are recovered for reuse;
  • The Environment Agency in England should undertake stronger enforcement and actively collect data to estimate the actual quantities of E-waste being exported illegally.

In 2015, all 193 member states of the United Nations signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals which are supposed to be met by 2030. Goal 12 - Responsible consumption and production, has several indicators to see if countries are meeting their pledges. According to SDG Index, many areas including Europe, Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand and several others have huge challenges to solve when it comes to electronic waste.

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