Recycle to sender

Written by: Michael Gormann | Published:

The rise of online retailing of electronic goods brings with it new challenges when it comes to end-of-life and regulatory compliance. A new solution has emerged in Germany that will make linking with recyclers as simple as a click of the button. Michael Gormann, the managing director of European Recycling Platform Deutschland, sets out the solution for the German market and what can be learned from it here in the UK

It’s an increasingly common sight in cities throughout Europe: someone walking with a cardboard box under their arm, making their way to a parcel service collection point, for the return to sender. As online retailing and e-commerce continues to grow at breakneck speed, so too does the business of delivering and returning packages, when the goods don’t fit the bill, or the shoe, quite literally, doesn’t fit.

Free returns have become part and parcel of the online retailing business model and consumers are very familiar with how it works. Introducing a similar process to recycling meets a major challenge facing online retailers when it comes to waste electronic goods and appliances (WEEE) and is the logical extension of the service. And there is no doubting the growth of online retailing.

A recent study funded by RetailMeNot.de has revealed that e-commerce is the biggest source of retail market growth in both the US and Europe. The research showed that in Europe annual online retailing growth rates of 18.4% and 18.6% were achieved in 2014 and 2015 respectively. And there are few signs of things slowing down.

The use of drones for the home delivery of goods bought online has been mooted by some major e-commerce players such as Amazon. Deploying drones could bring down delivery costs, reduce misdelivery bungles and make for a more environmentally friendly parcel transportation infrastructure.

It could also result in the growth rates for online retailing accelerating even further.

But with rapid growth comes new challenges. Recent changes to electronic end-of-life regulations in Germany - the ElektroG legislation - has prompted online retailers to find a new solution to the recycling of electronic goods and appliances when they become superseded or no longer function. And it comes at the click of a button.

As easy as it is to make purchases online, and many of us have done late night buying online only to regret it in the morning, it will now be possible to arrange for the return of older, out of order or obsolete electrical goods and their delivery to recycling centres. The latest version of ElektroG (§ 17 ElektroG) regulations in Germany requires online retailers with 400m2 or more of warehousing for electrical goods covered by WEEE directives to provide for the disposal and recycling at end-of-life.

While this doesn’t apply to smaller retailers, the economies of scale targeted by e-commerce companies and online retail business models mean that a large proportion of WEEE goods purchased online will fall under the regulations.

One-click solution

In July, the European Recycling Platform (ERP) launched its one-click solution to e-waste recycling for online retailers. While retailers with physical shopfronts have long been linked to council or municipal disposal points in Germany to ensure appropriate e-waste recycling, online retailers now have their own easy solution.

Parcel shipment stickers can be downloaded and printed, at the click of a button, from participating online retail websites and the package sent to the appropriate recycling facility. A button for consumers looking to recycle their WEEE goods can be easily located on the front page of the digital retailer. The existing network of parcel shipment drop-off points in German cities, and regional centres can be used by consumers to drop off their end-of-life electronic goods, in much the same way they would return an unwanted item for a refund.

These parcel drop-off points are generally well signposted in Germany, but the ERP program makes it easier still. When a consumer clicks on the online button to generate the parcel shipment sticker, they will also receive two additional links, with instructions as to the location of the closest drop-off points.

Waste equipment and appliances with a maximum weight of up to 10kg can be dispensed of free of charge by consumers at several thousand branches of United Parcel Service (UPS) in Germany. The goods will then be sent to collection centres operated by program partner Behrendt Recycling for professional recycling.

ERP Germany believes that the parcel delivery solution is the most straightforward and practicable for online commerce and consumers. The statutory requirement for end-of-life appliance disposal, under the latest iteration of the ElektroG legislation, requires that it can be executed at a reasonable distance for the consumer.

By using the relatively dense and nationwide branch network of parcel service providers this requirement can be met.

Additionally, if the return process is straightforward and easy for consumers, the likelihood of strong uptake levels increases.

Educating the public

ERP has already signed up three major retailers to the recycling program meaning that the program will gain good visibility with consumers. That the return of goods mistakenly purchased online is already well familiar to householders means that the need for broader education to the finer points of the system will likely be minimal.

The ERP one-click system generates the parcel shipment stickers, ensuring that the electronic goods are returned to the best-fit recycling facility. It also handles all invoicing and the preparation of annual reports required under the ElektroG regulations.

The program is funded on an annual fee basis. ERP has partnered with UPS on the delivery side, signing the contract bringing the program to life late last month. UPS has a sufficient number of parcel collection points to satisfy the ElektroG regulations while ensuring that it is convenient for consumers.

For larger electrical appliances and equipment, weighing more than 10kg, or larger than 25cm, the ERP offers dedicated pickup and disposal services.

“In the UK, we are seeing a significant increase in enquiries from producers about this type of arrangement,” says John Redmayne, the UK general manager of the European Recycling Platform.

“For certain types of WEEE, such as routers, parcel delivery returns are already in place and may have the ability to offset some of the producer’s WEEE obligation.

“At present, volumes are relatively small within the overall system – and there are restrictions on handling some types of product – but I think a system like this has got potential to work in the UK alongside existing programs and as an option within the overall WEEE system.”

The uptake of municipal electrical and electronic equipment disposal services in Germany has been a good news story. However, there is no denying that WEEE is growing at a startling speed and there is work still to be done. Making the process easy for consumers and by employing processes that are already familiar to them will likely break down barriers to its uptake and success.

When the dynamic of fast growing WEEE is coupled with the breakneck speed at which online retailing is being embraced by consumers, the need for a program such as ERP’s is urgent.

Fact file: EU WEEE

  • Fast-growing WEEE streams: In the EU a total of 10.3 million tonnes of WEEE is produced per year, by 2020 a further increase can be expected to 12.3 million tonnes per year
  • Insufficient recovery of WEEE: On average, only about one third of generated WEEE is collected and recycled across the EU
  • Loss of resources: Over 400,000 tonnes of WEEE are illegally exported from the EU and 4.7m tonnes within Europe are not treated according to environmental standards
  • Huge market: Recycling of WEEE in the EU is estimated to have the potential to generate revenues of €3.67 billion by the year 2020


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