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Surge in lockdown e-waste heading for landfill, experts fear, as recycling figures halve

Surge in lockdown e-waste heading for landfill, experts fear, as recycling figures halve

June 16, 2020
Madeleine Cuff

The closure of household waste and recycling centers (HWRCs) during lockdown may have caused a surge in electrical waste heading for landfill, experts fear

Smaller electrical items such as electric toothbrushes and kitchen blenders are among the most likely goods to have ended up in rubbish bins rather than the recycling system.

“We already know that too many small electricals are going into people’s black bin bags,” Scott Butler, executive director of recycling non-profit Material Focus, told MPs last week.

Speaking during an Environmental Audit Committee hearing, Butler warned this waste could be “lost forever” from the recycling system.

Research suggests 60% of people were de-cluttering during the lockdown, Butler told the hearing —  and if all that waste was being recycled, HWRCs should be experiencing a surge in collections.

But although most HWRCs are open, estimates suggest collection levels are still around 50% below normal levels for the time of year, Butler pointed out.

“The bigger stuff – the washing machines, the dishwashers, the fridges, I expect will enter the system because it’s a challenge for anyone to deal with at home… it’s the smaller electricals that we are worried may have been lost forever,” Butler added.

Speaking to i, Butler urged people with old electricals – “anything with a plug, battery or cable” – to store them safely until appropriate recycling collection points are open again.

There are also fears government attempts to encourage the use of bikes and scooters post-lockdown could prove dangerous for the recycling industry.

Concern is growing over the treatment and disposal of lithium ion batteries, which are found in everything from mobile phones and laptops to electric toothbrushes. Unless processed and recycled safely, lithium batteries pose a serious fire risk.

Phil Conran is chair of the Approved Authorised Treatment Facility Forum, the industry body representing waste electronics recyclers. He told i that lithium fires are “an almost daily occurrence” across UK recycling plants, with big fires breaking out “almost weekly”.

“It is a huge issue,” he said. “A lot of these batteries are being put into household waste bins or thrown into skips at recycling sites. And they are not then treated with the caution that is needed.”

Electric bike retailers are reporting double-digit sales growth across the UK over recent weeks, as commuters prepare to return to the office. But although the sales boom is good news for public health and air quality, it increases the pressure on producers and recyclers to find a safe solution for used lithium batteries, Conran explained.

“[Lithium fires] are a growing issue with new sources of batteries like bicycles,” he suggested. “The thing with bikes is that the size of the battery is such that somebody will be able to go to a community site and chuck the bike and batteries straight into the bin.”

This article first appeared on the i website

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