Electrical and electronic waste: Germany misses EU collection rate of 45 percent by a narrow margin

Consumer return options provide too little incentive – a need for network of collection points and more publicity

Waschmaschinen auf einem HaufenClick to enlarge
Waste electrical and electronic equipment holds many valuable raw materials.
Source: djama / Fotolia.com

The German Environment Agency (UBA) reports that 853,000 tonnes of electrical and electronic waste (WEEE) was collected in Germany in 2018. It is an amount corresponding to a collection rate of 43.1 percent, placing Germany slightly below the EU collection target of 45 percent. In order to achieve the collection rate of at least 65 percent that applies to Germany from 2019, a whole package of measures is needed. "If we want to comply with the EU targets in the future, the collection volume of WEEE must increase by more than 50 percent compared to 2018. Returning WEEE should become much easier for consumers in order to do so. Having a consumer-oriented network with considerably more collection and return points than now would be useful and for which the take-back obligation would have to be extended to additional retail outlets. Retailers should also step up their advertisement of the return options," said UBA's President Dirk Messner. If used appliances are disposed of improperly - for example in grey or yellow bins - valuable raw materials will be lost, not to mention the heavy metals possibly released into the environment. The Federal Environment Ministry aims to initiate an amendment to the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act shortly which will include measures to increase the amount of waste equipment collected.

2,375,643 tonnes of electrical appliances were placed on the market in Germany in 2018, an increase of around 294,000 tonnes (about 15 percent) compared to 2017. However, the collection and take-back of WEEE increased by only 16,217 tonnes over the previous year. This collection rate of 43.1 percent narrowly misses the European target of a 45-percent minimum of the average mass of appliances placed on the market in the three previous years. Very high collection rates of over 75 percent were again recorded for small household appliances such as hairdryers and toasters, as well as consumer electronics appliances (e.g. digital cameras and radios). The per capita collection volume has also grown continuously in recent years. Whereas 7.6 kilograms was collected in 2015, that quantity rose to 9.3 kilograms per person and year in 2018.

There are several reasons the target was missed: the gap between the appliances placed on the market and the used appliances collected (almost half a million tonnes) is particularly wide for washing machines, refrigerators and other large household appliances. In the case of commercial appliances, the gap is around 240,000 tonnes, thus a collection rate of only around 25%. In the latter case, however, there is no free take-back obligation on the part of retailers or local authorities. An unknown quantity of WEEE is collected, for example, via non-certified scrap yards and illegal collectors and is therefore not included in the proper collection quantities. Mainly smaller old appliances are still disposed of improperly in household waste (residual waste).

To increase collection volumes as required in the future, it is important to make the return of WEEE even easier by means of a consumer-friendly network of collection and recovery points. It would be conceivable, for example, that additional retailers who sell electrical appliances would be obliged to take back the equipment, in proportion to their total sales area, and to extend the information obligations of retailers on the take-back of used appliances.

UBA continues to investigate the reasons for insufficient collection of WEEE. A research project is currently investigating the structures and extent of illegal fate of waste electrical and electronic equipment (e.g. illegal collection and residual waste bins), economic incentives, and the completeness of existing data reports. Research results are expected in 2021.

How do I dispose of electrical waste properly?

Consumers can bring their discarded electrical and electronic waste for free to municipal collection points such as local collection stations or the Household Hazardous Waste Collection Vehicle. Some municipalities also set up containers in public spaces for small appliances or offer additional dates for their collection from households. The arrangements made in municipalities may vary.

Used electrical appliances purchased at both retail outlets and mail order companies can also be returned free of charge to dealers who sell electrical appliances on a sales area or storage and dispatch area of at least 400 m². This applies in particular to larger electrical retailers and DIY stores. For small appliances (up to 25 cm edge length), this applies regardless of whether a new purchase is made. For other appliances (larger than 25 cm), take-back applies only when a new appliance of the same type is purchased. However, the old appliances need not have been purchased from the respective retail outlet. Many other retailers also take back (specific types of) used electrical appliances such as lamps free of charge.

The incorrect disposal of old appliances, e.g. in residual waste or with packaging waste (yellow bin/yellow bag), as well as disposal via commercial collectors (e.g. scrap collectors and dealers who often advertise with direct mail), runs the risk that valuable raw materials cannot be recovered and harmful substances are released into the environment. Old appliances containing lithium batteries and accumulators can also cause serious fires if they are incorrectly treated and disposed of. Batteries and rechargeable batteries that are still in place should therefore be removed whenever possible and disposed of in the waste battery collection before returning the equipment be discarded.

Since December 2019, the information campaign "Plan-E" of the stiftung elektro-altgeräte register (ear) has been answering questions about the correct disposal of electrical and electronic appliances. Consumers can find information and ask questions on www.e-schrott-entsorgen.org and by phone under (+49) 911 76665299. The Federal Environment Ministry and UBA support the campaign.