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Who is watching the EA on policy?

Many BMRA members are involved in the business of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

This ranges from the collection, sorting and processing at authorised treatment facilities to the approved export of WEEE-derived materials.

The recast WEEE Directive 2012 was transposed into UK law from the start of 2014. The recast brings higher recycling targets, and the collection volume of WEEE must rise by 3% to meet 2014 targets. For some materials, a collection rate of up to 85% of WEEE must be met, as well as substantial recycling and recovery rates, so the producers of electrical goods meet their responsibilities.

The BMRA welcomed the WEEE Regulations 2013 as having the potential to reduce the cost of compliance while helping the UK to achieve higher recycling targets and improve the treatment of WEEE. The favoured approach as a result of the consultation process is proportionate, and recognises that the greater value left in the waste stream, the higher levels of real reuse, recycling and recovery should be without resorting to ever more complex economic tools which distort or disrupt markets.

But it remains our objective to ensure that controls around the treatment of WEEE are appropriate, provide sensible levels of environmental protection and do not hinder the existing and effective processing and trade of these materials.

We are also keen to develop standards for the collection and treatment of WEEE to complement the recast Directive while minimising the amount of auditing and paperwork.

The impact of Defra on the regulatory landscape has been minimal in the past year since resource minister Dan Rogerson announced that the department would be “stepping back” from the waste and recycling industry. Possibly as a result, the Environment Agency (EA) in England has increasingly assumed the role of policy maker without any of the usual controls by a ‘gatekeeper’. There are a number of recent decisions by the EA with which the BMRA takes issue.

After minimal consultation, in 2013 the EA reclassified fridges containing pentane gas in the insulating foam as hazardous on the basis that the foam had been found to be flammable. The decision gave metal recyclers only three months’ notice before the changes had to be implemented, which seriously disrupted the established collection and processing chain.

Fridges containing pentane are now classed as hazardous even though foam containing pentane is no more flammable than newspaper – an example of health and safety gone mad.

The EA’s guidance has put existing treatment capacity under strain and caused an increase in fly-tipping. Most metal recycling sites will no longer take in fridges and specialist fridge recycling plants do not have the capacity to handle the increased supply. This has resulted in an oversupply of recyclable fridges, a marked reduction in their value and a surge of dumped fridges.

The EA should reverse its decision regarding the reclassification of this waste stream and a proper risk assessment and consultation should be carried out. This was, in our opinion, a policy decision, not an implementation of existing Government policy.

Earlier this year, the EA effectively determined that small domestic appliances (SDA) that are collected together in the form of small mixed WEEE must be characterised as a hazardous waste and treated accordingly. This decision was justified on the basis that some hazards, such as button batteries, may be present in SDA, but without any clear evidence that the existing collection and treatment posed any risk to human health or the environment.

Again, this was a decision that disrupted an existing material flow suddenly and without robust supporting evidence. It will simply make the treatment of WEEE even more complex and reduce the value of the waste stream, threatening the highly competitive recycling rates achieved in the UK.

The BMRA is also increasingly concerned about the EA’s response to complaints about metal recycling sites, even though alleged nuisances often do not breach permit conditions and are not supported by any objective measurement. All our members seek to create a harmonious relationship with their neighbours. But every move to increase rates of recycling and recovery will increase industrialisation, which means more plant, equipment and space.

The greatest challenge our members face is to coexist with the communities they rely on and serve, despite the expansion of towns into areas where metal recycling facilities have been located for generations. Most people support recycling but few want to live beside it.

Defra has a role in all of these issues by providing a broader policy context in which the EA can deliver on Government policy and robust, independent enforcement where necessary.

Ian Hetherington is the director general of the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA)

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