Waste electrical electronic equipment (WEEE) is often considered to be one of the fastest growing waste streams in Europe. Some 1.3 million tonnes of electrical and electronic equipment are purchased each year. Retail data shows this corresponds to about 150 million individual items: between two and three items per head for every person in the UK. This includes 26 million mobile phones, 30 million kitchen appliances, 23 million personal care items, nine million LCD TVs and six million laptop computers.
WRAP’s recently released Plastics Market Situation Report indicates that, although WEEE collections rose by 10% from 2008 to 2009, we are still collecting only about 450,000 tonnes for recycling. This is substantially more than the currently required 4kg per person, but to meet the proposed targets in the recast of the WEEE Directive, much more will need to be collected and recycled.
The way in which WEEE is collected and treated can greatly affect the quality of materials available for reprocessing. If manufacturers develop products that have recyclability designed in, if customers receive clear guidance from retailers and if local authorities have good relationships with reprocessors to deal with the unwanted electrical items, then quality is driven up and valuable resources are recovered.
With this in mind, the team at WRAP worked with industry, the Government and environment agencies to bring together evidence, good practice and information on where to go for further support. The easy-to-use online guidance, launched in August, is designed to support the whole supply chain, with specific sections for each part of the chain.
“WEEE presents a challenge but also a huge opportunity to create jobs in the UK”
The guidance allows the user to identify how they can improve their operations, taking into consideration local needs. It gives options that help organisations to identify the key areas in their systems that may need to be developed while providing assurance of compliance with the WEEE Code of Practice set by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
WEEE needs to be managed from the inception and specification of a product, right through to end-of-life treatment and reprocessing. WEEE can be a rich stream of scarce metals including gold and platinum while also being a source of hazardous materials, such as the mercury in LCD screens. We need to have good processes in place for recovering these precious resources and dealing with toxic materials.
The Plastics Market Situation Report also highlights another areas where more UK processing capacity is needed. Only about 5,000 tonnes a year of WEEE plastics are currently reprocessed in the UK, with more than 90% being exported. But plastics containing brominated flame retardants, typically from circuitboards and cabling, cannot be legally exported out of the EU for recycling. As collections of WEEE increase, this presents a gap in the market for UK reprocessors to provide a solution, keeping plastics in the UK for reuse.
This is why WRAP is looking ahead to the products that will be entering the waste stream in five to ten years, with the aim of trying to identify if the industry is able to meet changes in the material waste stream.
WEEE presents a challenge but also a huge opportunity to create jobs in the UK, recovering and reprocessing plastics, metals and other vital components. As we become more aware of the impact of our dependency on technology, we have an opportunity to think creatively and ensure that systems to recover materials from ever-more sophisticated WEEE are cutting edge to ensure it is a challenging business opportunity.
Marcus Gover is director of market development at WRAP