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Action Proposed for Re-use of Waste Electronics, Furniture and Other Leisure Items

On 29 August 2019, the European Commission released a news alert drawing attention to a German study regarding the potential to re-use waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE), furniture and leisure goods from household waste. The study analyses the quality of the waste items and their potential to be re-used as well as the amount of work required to make an item re-usable. Hong Kong manufacturers and traders should be aware that, if programmes are adopted to encourage re-use of the above items, this could reduce the demand for new products imported into the EU, especially low-price products.

The German study on the potential for the re-use of electrical and electronic equipment, furniture and leisure equipment found that around 13-16% of household waste is in a sufficiently good condition to be re-used easily. The market for the sampled items, when sold new, is one in which Hong Kong companies are very active.

The study looked at 61 collection points of household waste across the German state of Bavaria and categorised waste according to the condition in which it was. The team of researchers looked at 5,204 items, including 3,827 WEEE devices, 1,132 pieces of furniture and 245 leisure goods (including bicycles, sports equipment and toys). The better the condition, the easier it would be to re-use them. After assessing the state of the items, the researchers looked at whether the damage to the items, if any, had occurred while still in use or during and after disposal, when it was transported or stored. From this, a three-tier scale was developed with Tier I being items which are easy to prepare for re-use without any special action, Tier II items which have been lightly damaged during or after disposal and would be usable if that damage had not occurred, and Tier III items which have been lightly damaged during use but could be re-used if users were incentivised to conserve their possessions. From these findings the researchers deduced certain practical recommendations on how to maximise the potential for re-use. Their four recommendations are the following:

1. Use value-conserving boxes for transport, instead of bulk cargo containers.

2. Separate reusable items at the point of disposal.

3. Use weatherproof, protective storage containers.

4. Prohibit pre-treatment.

Weatherproofing storage would be particularly effective for improving the re-use of WEEE, as moisture in particular leads to a faster deterioration of the quality of these products. In fact, the researchers found that 86% of damage to WEEE during storage was caused by weather. The study concludes that through such weatherproofed storage, 23,850 tonnes of WEEE could be moved from Tier II to Tier I. Protective containers could also bring 74% of leisure goods from Tier II into Tier I according to the study. On the other hand, furniture would mostly benefit from the sorting of re-usable and non-reusable items at the time of disposal.

Some items may of course be of very high quality but nevertheless not suitable for re-use. This is, in particular, the case for outdated technology where there is no consumer demand. The example cited here are cathode-ray tube televisions. For many other items, there is a market for used goods. In an opinion survey from 2011, 45% of people in the EU had reported that they would buy second hand electronics. Even more claimed they would buy second hand furniture (56%).

While only 36% of EU citizens said they would purchase second hand textiles, the market for second hand clothes is growing, especially in Eastern Member States. Furniture re-use is far less common, although on the rise in the EU. It is not just the financial crisis that causes more and more people to choose second hand items. Growing consciousness with regard to the environment, climate and waste reduction are also starting to have an impact on consumer preferences, which may be of interest to Hong Kong producers.

The EU has been committed to waste disposal projects for a long time and importantly Directive 2008/98/EC, the framework EU law on waste, sets out the EU waste disposal priorities at Article 4(1). The Directive is binding on all Member States and requires them to implement measures to achieve the outcomes prescribed. Re-use is very much a priority of the EU’s waste management approach. It should be noted that the Directive already requires Member States to take measures to encourage re-use and that the EU has even set a target of 50% for recycling and re-use, albeit no separate target for re-use. Hong Kong companies should be aware that social enterprises as well as some EU governments (see Regulatory Alert-EU 167/2019) campaign for legislation to increase re-use. Any such measures could have an impact on the demand for new (and in particular low-priced) imported electrical and electronic equipment, furniture and leisure items.

Studies such as this one could lead governments to explore new methods of waste collection and storage in order to encourage the re-use of items. This would have an impact on the number of new items purchased. In particular, Hong Kong producers should be aware of this trend if they produce low-budget items which have, until now, been seen as very easily replaceable by a new item. In many cases the waste item is still usable and often only needs minor repairs or modifications. While, in the past, many users would have opted to buy a brand new item at a low price from Hong Kong manufacturers and importers of such items, increasingly consumers in Europe consider whether there are second hand alternatives.

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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