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Forward thinking

As uncertainty continues to cloud the Waste Electrical Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, with the finer points of producer responsibility and a national clearing house being thrashed out, there are concerns that barriers have been created, not only to investment in recycling facilities and infrastructure but to innovation.

According to a report from Waste Watch, Plastics in the UK Economy, there is currently very limited recycling of post-consumer plastics from WEEE in the UK and it has not been possible to establish any significant post-consumer tonnage recycled.

At present metal makes up around 50% of WEEE, and is currently the only material to be recovered in large quantities. However, plastics make up at least 20% of the waste stream but the majority of this is sent to landfill. According to the Waste Watch report, the electrical and electronics industry consumed an estimated 355,000 tonnes of plastic material during 2000 with post-consumer plastics estimated at 220,000 tonnes.

Ulrich Hakenjos, manager of take-back operations at electronics producer HP, says that the EU directive requires a recycling target for ICT equipment of 65%. This means that 65% in weight of collected and treated ICT has to be recycled on a materials level with no landfill, energy recovery or incineration.

Current and future products will contain an increasing amount of plastics as, for example, traditional cameras are replaced by digital cameras, CRT monitors and TVs are replaced by flat screen displays and desktop PCs are replaced by laptops and PDAs. For both technical and marketing reasons, Hakenjos believes that the variety and functionality of plastics will increase further but says that plastics with special properties such as flame retardancy, coated enclosures and compound plastics are not at the moment considered to be recyclable.

Plastics in the UK Economy concurs that the wide range of equipment and polymer types makes recovering plastics from WEEE a potentially challenging task.

By weight, 90% of waste electrical and electronic equipment is made up of large household appliances, IT equipment and brown goods. These types of equipment and polymers therefore have the greatest potential for recovery and recycling.

However, plastics need to be identified and separated into single polymer types if they are to be reprocessed for use in high added-value applications but contamination can prevent this. Despite this, the report says: Businesses providing technologies and operational facilities to separate polymers to market standards have the potential to address this barrier. There has been considerable development of technologies to identify and separate plastics both at the dismantling stage and post shredding.



Drivers

While there are a growing number of routes for the collection of WEEE, the primary drivers for new collection systems are not targeted specifically at plastics waste, although to meet targets there will need to be an increase in consumer collections of WEEE including plastics.

The report says that the plastics-recycling sector does not need to replicate existing supply infrastructure. Recyclers could enhance their income through charging a gate fee for plastics from WEEE, which, if lower than alternative disposal costs, will create an incentive to divert plastic waste from the waste stream.

Hakenjos believes that a long-term effective and economically feasible solution to plastics recycling requires a combined effort from producers, recycling companies, producers of recycling equipment, the plastics industry and government. The four critical success factors of an effective and cost-efficient management of WEEE are innovation through healthy competition and free choice of compliance system, a legal framework that enables innovations in recycling technologies and encourages market participants to invest, a realistic view on aspirationally achievable goals, and non-bureaucratic movement of WEEE from one EU country into anot

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