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White van man can be part of the solution

They don’t have the best reputation and my first real encounter with white van man certainly wasn’t a positive one. But this experience has often made me wonder if he provides the answer to the puzzling gaps in the UK’s electronic waste data.

It was house renovations that led to my first meeting with white van man. Blocking my access, his van was angled across the drive. I could see him standing on top of my hired skip, rummaging through its contents and throwing them all over the drive. But he was putting the metallic items into the back of his van.

“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked. “The guys said I could help myself to any metals in the skip mate”, he replied. They hadn’t. I checked out the vehicle registration; quite new. “You see, I recently lost me job and I need to feed my kids”, he added. I spied the expensive watch – with gold. I asked him: “Permits? Your insurance, your waste carrier’s licence?” He wasn’t impressed. “You what? It’s because of the likes of you this country is on his knees”. And with that he jumped into his van and drove away, taking off with the metallic contents of my skip and giving me the finger. My driveway was left strewn with the unwanted rubbish.

The UK EEE and WEEE data throws out some strange patterns. The most puzzling of these is the gap between the weight of the large household appliances placed onto the UK market and the weight that’s then collected. Whilst it’s likely that householders are getting rid of smaller electrical items in wheelie bins or storing them in the back of cupboards, it’s less likely that householders are hoarding their old broken washing machines or dishwashers. But the data consistently delivers a take back percentage in the low thirties. So where is this missing WEEE?

Visit a scrap metal dealers and sitting within the light iron pile you’ll find a plethora of large household appliances. Many of these come in from one-man band outfits who cash in the items alongside other items of scrap metal.

So even though the metal is recycled, none of these items is passing through the Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities (AATF)/Approved Exporter route and the result is that they are not contributing to the WEEE recycling rates.

The problem is that it is going to become increasingly important to capture and report all WEEE in the official recycling system. And the answer to this is, as always, one of economics. The cost of compliance for large household producers has always been lower than those producing screens or computer equipment. With the waste having a positive cash value, the evidence has mainly represented a scheme’s administration charge.

But to attract the WEEE away from scrap metal dealers and into AATFs, the price paid for the scrap may have to be increased by £50 - £60 per tonne. The only way to finance this increase will be via the evidence note. So the cost to comply will simply have to increase.

Ignoring the permitting and liability insurances for a moment, on the face of it white van man offers a valuable service to the general public. Whether paying out any cash or not, he’s happy to pick up metallic items from the curb at any time of the day or night. For inner city dwellers without transport, their service is a godsend. And in these times of cut-backs, he could be considered the silent collection partner to the local authorities.

Whatever your views on white van man, there are more challenging recycling targets lurking on the horizon and it’s clear that he could assist us in meeting these. So perhaps the key is to focus more on trying to find ways to work with, rather than against, white van man.

David Adams, managing director, Clarity

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