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Feature: A glimpse of the future in action

A series of orderly conveyor belts and sorting equip-ment greets you when you step into Wincanton’s recycling plant near Middlesbrough. The state-of-the-art WEEE recycling machinery now sits alongside the European supply chain company’s existing equipment for recycling fridges.

The WEEE recycling element of the plant, unveiled earlier this month, represents an investment of £4.5 million. It’s a significant sum, and one that Wincanton chief executive Graeme McFaull says is indicative that the company is “in [recycling] for the long-term”. Indeed, it takes the company’s investment in recycling to date to £10m, including the fridge recycling operation it acquired in 2002.

Able to process around 10 tonnes of WEEE per hour, Wincanton says the plant’s high-speed technology would require the equivalent of 150-200 people to do the same job manually. It will, of course, create some jobs and the company expects to double the plant’s existing workforce of about 35. The rapid recycling capacity is estimated to be able to process about 75,000 tonnes of WEEE per year – equivalent to 826,500 washing machines.

Asked how many of these plants the UK is likely to need to be able to cope with its obligations once the WEEE Directive is in place, Wincanton estimates five to ten. So you can see why McFaull considers the directive as a “significant opportunity for the UK and a significant opportunity for Wincanton”. The expectation is that the company will expand its WEEE recycling operations in the future.

The WEEE Directive states that the “best available technology” must be used to handle WEEE, and Wincanton is confident that its plant more than fits the bill. It is capable of handling all categories of WEEE and recycles about 95% of it – in excess of the directive’s legislative requirements. The directive has set increasing recycling targets for different categories of WEEE, stating that 75% of white goods and fridges must be recycled, 65% of IT and consumer equipment, and 50% of small appliances.

Key to Wincanton’s WEEE operation is the German technology it uses. Supplied by MeWa, also behind the company’s fridge recycling system, the equipment uses unique QZ technology – making the plant the first of its kind in the UK. The basis of it is the use of heavy chains to break up the material rather than more conventional shearing technology. It is not the chains themselves that break up the WEEE; they spin around a large drum with the WEEE and create a vortex, so that kinetic energy breaks the equipment apart.

The analogy Wincanton uses to explain the system is that of cracking a nut: the outer shell of the equipment is broken, releasing the inner components in a relatively unscathed condition. Retrieving these innards as whole components means the operation gains high-quality output. This helps achieve a higher value for the material, making the processing cost-effective and maximising recycling levels.

Once the inner components are released, mechanical separation is used to divide the material into three streams: coarse ferrous, coarse non-ferrous and fines. It then goes through a picking station, where high-value and hazardous components such as electrical motors, batteries and printed circuit boards are manually sep-arated. These are then sent off to specialist companies for recycling. The remaining mate

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