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Europe's green light for WEEE recast will boost waste values and volumes

Last month European Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik confirmed that the European Council had formally adopted the recast of the WEEE Directive. This is excellent news for the future recycling of this valuable waste stream, as the Recast will signal a steep increase in mandatory recycling rates for WEEE, with the current 4 kgs of WEEE recycled per person per year due to rise to 20kgs per person by 2020. But how does this fit into the wider picture on WEEE recycling?

This important decision from the European Council is part of a growing realisation across the sustainable resource management sector of the inherent value in waste electrical equipment. 2012 has seen the launch of Defra’s Resource Security Action Plan, which highlights the importance of rare earths and metals to the UK manufacturing sector. A key part of this will be extracting such metals from waste EEE to keep them within a nation-wide ‘resources loop’. This counteracts the current, more common practice of exporting this kind of waste for reprocessing in nations such as China, which are more naturally rich in these valuable commodities, as well as better conditioned to extract them from discarded products.

This renewed focus on the importance of recycling WEEE, both from an environmental and economic perspective, was recently reinforced when the Chief Executive of WRAP, Dr Liz Goodwin, called for an urgent upgrade of reprocessing infrastructure for WEEE. Dr Goodwin linked this to the WEEE Recast, pointing out that there should be an increase in material flowing through the market due to the higher collection targets, as well as underlining WRAP’s belief in the importance of improving rates of extraction of rare earths and valuable metals.

So why have we become more interested in the inherent value of WEEE? The rocketing and possibly permanently high price of a number of commodities and the troubling economic circumstances currently facing all European nations have re-focused attention on the missed opportunities within the resources market. The current practice of shredding WEEE may be useful for capturing bulk metals and plastics, but when it comes to rarer components, such as copper or platinum, this waste stream has been a missed opportunity for the UK for too long.

As the WEEE Recast is passed into law, it will be a huge driver for WEEE collection and reprocessing in terms of volume. It will be vital, however, that this quantity of material is coupled with a quality-based approach when it comes to how it is handled after collection. It has been estimated that a quarter of all WEEE taken to landfill has a reuse value and that value is often extinguished simply by the handling process.  Reusing, rather than shredding in such instances could save perhaps 100 tonnes of rare earths- 10% of the UK’s overall annual demand.  Boosting both quantity of collection and quality of reprocessing makes environmental and economic sense, and could potentially see an associated boost in employment in the sector. There is no doubt that this is a win-win-win.

Dr Alan Whitehead is MP for Southampton Test and a co-chair of the Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group.

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