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Dose of reality needed for WEEE treatment capacity

Recent reports of problems at some WEEE treatment plants following an influx of waste televisions raises interesting points relating to the capacity in the UK to collect and treat all types of WEEE – especially in light of the new requirements for increased collections that will come into play once the WEEE Recast is finalised.

Concerns were raised by SWEEEP, a WEEE treatment facility in Kent, following a 30% increase in the volume of televisions being delivered since the start of 2012 – attributing this to the digital switchover.  Veolia said it had seen an increase of around 2,222 extra sets a month being deposited at their collection facilities in Birmingham.   In the past twelve months other waste management companies and WEEE recyclers around the UK have experienced similar upsurges when the switchover has been made.  However, this has almost been concluded now – with only three TV regions yet to complete the switch.

The pre-WEEE hype that there would be over two million tonnes of WEEE arising in the UK each year prompted many operators to invest, only to see around a quarter of this arise last year.  The propensity for WEEE recyclers to stretch themselves and bid for more work than they can treat in a reasonable time (or as conditioned in their license) has long been an issue. Given the large outlay in both specialist equipment and staff; operators need to ensure that they have sufficient feedstock to keep their operations viable. 

Some recyclers have been successful in winning large contracts – sometimes from collection sites a great distance from their operating base; others have only gained low volume contracts and may well be asking themselves (if they are still in business) if it is worth staying in the WEEE sector. 

Unlike their EU counterparts, many UK Producer Compliance Schemes contract with WEEE recyclers based on price alone, anticipating that larger volumes bring greater discounts rather than considering the environmental impact or the potential oversupply and breach of site licenses at those sites who receive in more WEEE than they can treat.

Things may have to change when the new WEEE Recast targets and treatment standards are implemented as the capacity to treat WEEE in a compliant and environmentally sound manner has to take precedence over cost. 

In respect of televisions however insufficient capacity is not an issue.  Out of the 183 AATFs on the Environment Agency public register (with additional AATFs in Scotland and Northern Ireland) a conservative estimate of treatment capacity is in excess of 150,000 tonnes p.a.  (TVs and PC monitors) and this doesn’t include the export trade of used / reuse units. In 2011 AATFs received 137,000 tonnes in total (household and non-household). 

Given that this figure amounted to just over 120% of display units that were placed on the market in 2011 – it is likely that the vast majority of the UK AATFs will begin to see a drop in the tonnages arising this year now that the switchover has been all-but completed.

The new WEEELABEX Standard (to be incorporated in a CENELEC WEEE Standard) states that recycling plants should not receive more WEEE (of all categories) than they can treat and recycle in six months. Perhaps therefore, rather than calling on the Environment Agency to relax storage rules Schemes should be more mindful of this and  operators should ensure that they have the capacity to effectively treat the WEEE they receive in a reasonable time period. 

Julie-Ann Adams, Managing Director, Really Green Credentials Ltd

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