There has been much in the media during the past few months about the circular economy (CE) since the announcement of the EU’s circular economy package in December.
The move away from the traditional linear economy of ‘take-make-use-dispose’ to a CE of ‘make-use-return-recycle’ requires more efficient management of waste streams – or resource streams as they should be called.
The idea of making better use of resources is not new: some manufacturers have been doing it for years in the interests of keeping down costs and boosting potential profit. The difference now is that we need to be smarter about how we do it.
‘Make do and mend’ is a watchword for older generations, but how do you square that with a world of fast-moving technology where there seems to be an upgrade available every two or three months? Education is at the heart of the matter: whether that is education for businesses to change their manufacturing processes or their approach to managing ‘waste’, or for individuals to change their consumption and disposal habits.
Some companies are already on board with the CE but SMEs are perhaps less aware of the concept. It is also a mixed bag when it comes to the general public, with some householders being eco-warriors and others paying little regard to how much they throw away or which bin they put stuff in.
A key element in all this waste – certainly in tonnage terms – is waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). It is often cited as one of the fastest-growing waste streams in Europe, and there can be few businesses that do not have at least a few redundant phones, computers and leads hanging around. Equally, most individuals will have a drawer or cupboard that has become a graveyard for a range of electronic gadgetry they no longer use.
What to do with it all? Ironically, it can be easier to deal with the bigger items because there is usually a take-back scheme through the supplier. It is the small stuff that is more problematic, and can cause huge challenges if it ends up in the standard household waste bin.
There are two sides to managing the WEEE mountain. The first is that some of the materials are hazardous and can cause major environmental and health problems. The other is that WEEE often contains some rare and expensive materials which should be recovered for reuse.
But the market for such commodities is volatile and prices for recovered materials can be higher than virgin sources, making it difficult for the recycling company to maintain a viable business.
When faced with this dichotomy, legislation is often the key to ‘encourage’ manufacturers and consumers to ‘do the right thing’.
The rising challenge of what to do with all this WEEE was a driver behind two EU Directives. The WEEE Directive (introducing collection schemes for WEEE) and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (restricting the use of certain substances in electrical and electronic equipment) first came into force some 13 years ago, with subsequent updates in February 2014 and January 2013, respectively.
These Directives have spawned a number of EU-funded projects focused on WEEE. Training organisation Wamitab is currently involved in an Erasmus+ Sector Skills Alliance programme, working with partners in Cyprus, Italy, Poland and the UK, to create a new qualification programme to develop management skills in the WEEE sector.
It is clear that the right skills need to be in place to ensure that recycling – whether for repair and reuse purposes or to generate raw materials and components – is managed in a safe and efficient way that limits its negative impact on the environment. Taking a pan-EU approach to creating a cohort of individuals with the range of skills to support the drive towards a CE is important if we are to make best use of resources.
With the upcoming referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU or leave, what would happen to a commitment to manage this ever-growing waste stream?
WEEE recycling is perhaps not as advanced in the UK as in other parts of Europe. So, if the UK leaves, will businesses recognise the need to continue with it or will they be eager to shake off the WEEE Directive as just another piece of EU bureaucracy?
In reality, statistics for 2014 showed that some 55% of our goods and services went to Europe, so it might not be so easy to disregard the legislation if the UK is no longer part of the EU.
Chris James is chief executive of Wamitab