NEW RULES are “urgently required” to prevent households from throwing out unwanted electrical equipment. That’s the considered opinion of the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA). The clarion call emerges as experts voice the view that waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) can now be linked to three times more fires inside bin lorries and at household waste recycling centres than initially thought.
WEEE generally covers products that have a plug or need a battery, such as fridges, vacuum cleaners, cookers, mobile phones and computer equipment.
Discarded items may contain batteries which can cause fires if they are damaged. As such, the belief is that they need to be treated differently to general household waste.
With councils set to collect two million unwanted WEEE items, the BMRA is calling on local authorities to carry out kerbside collections.
James Kelly, CEO of the BMRA, said: “Councils need to introduce kerbside collections for discarded WEEE items. We are seeing increased fires happening in bin lorries and at household waste recycling centres as well as metal recycling sites like those of our members where these items can end up in the incorrect waste stream. People’s lives are at risk.”
The BMRA states that the fires are often caused by damaged lithium and lithium-ion batteries housed inside the discarded electrical items. There have long been fears that these batteries cause fires. Research conducted as part of the ‘Recycle Your Electricals’ campaign led by Material Focus suggests that such batteries can now be linked to 700 fires in the past 12 months.
Kelly, whose Trade Association represents the £7 billion UK metal recycling sector, has made the point that this issue is particularly prominent at Christmas and in the early part of the New Year.
“Almost two fires every day across the country can now be linked to these batteries,” asserted Kelly. “In the space of ten weeks, thanks to Black Friday deals, Christmas gifts, the Boxing Day sales and the January sales, we are likely to see millions of electrical items being discarded. If there is not an easy option, such as kerbside collection, it’s likely that much of this waste will be disposed of incorrectly. This massively increases the risk of fires across the waste sector. That’s why we need to see kerbside collections introduced right away.”
Far bigger issue
According to the results of the recent survey conducted by Material Focus, fires caused by lithium batteries are potentially a far bigger issue than previously reported. The survey shows that nearly 90% of the 60 local authorities surveyed said fires caused by such batteries are “an increasing problem”.
Back in December, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that he had “serious safety concerns” about some lithium-ion batteries used in privately owned e-scooters and in online conversion kits. Khan’s warning came after the London Fire Brigade reported there had been 130 fires across 2022 involving the batteries (65 of them used by e-bikes, 24 by e-scooters and the remainder involving those used in e-cigarettes). Some are known to overheat when being charged.
The scale of unwanted electrical waste in the UK is vast. In late 2021, UK households bought nearly 40 million electrical items in the period between Black Friday and Christmas. This resulted in 4.2 million unwanted electrical items being “abandoned”, the hoarding of 2.2 million items and the other two million being thrown away.
Research has found that 33% of households have at least one electrical device in the home that doesn’t work and could be recycled. This figure t includes circa 21 million desktop computers, 18.5 million games consoles, 11.7 million laptops and 9.17 million tablets and printers which are working but no longer used by the household.
Research carried out by Currys claims that more than £850 million worth of precious metals could be salvaged from these electrical products each year (including enough gold to make more than 850,000 rings).
James Kelly concluded: “Aside from the safety issues regarding fires, hoarding e-waste also prevents a great many raw materials being made available again from recycling. These include metals such as copper, cobalt and tungsten.”
According to a report issued by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, the UK generates 23.9 kg of e-waste per person each year. This is second only to Norway and far exceeds the world average of 7.3 kg per capita as well as the European average.