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The future of WEEE treatment

Since the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations came into force in 2007, we have been successful in setting up systems and arrangements that allow WEEE to be collected and passed on for reuse or recycling.

The UK’s performance has exceeded the target in the original WEEE Directive of collecting 4kg per head of population. Currently we are collecting in excess of 7kg. In absolute terms, the UK is recovering and recycling more than 480,000 tonnes of WEEE each year - and this amount is set to increase.

The original directive was timetabled for a review in 2011. This has now concluded and a recast was published in the summer. The recast directive provides member states with an 18-month window in which to transpose it into member state legislation. This window closes on 14 February 2014.

So what was the original purpose of the directive and has this changed with the recast?

The directive was introduced to deal with the environmental impact of end-of life electrical equipment. WEEE is one of the fastest-growing types of waste, and many used electrical products contain hazardous substances such as CFCs, nickel-cadmium batteries or lamps that contain mercury.

A further concern was that, with the exception of metal-rich large appliances such as dishwashers, fridges and washing machines, recycling rates for most types of WEEE were low.

The WEEE Regulations aim to cut the amount of untreated WEEE going to landfill; ensure that hazardous items are removed for specialist treatment; and increase the amount of WEEE that is reused or recycled.

One of the key elements of the directive is to place the costs of recovering and recycling household WEEE on to the producers placing those products on to the market. The UK system requires that all businesses placing electrical equipment (EE)on the market register each year.

This is achieved by the producer registering with an approved WEEE compliance scheme.

The schemes then take on the responsibility to ensure they collect a proportionate amount of the separately collected WEEE. The proportion they have to collect is a function of the amount of EE members place on the market.

Different arrangements are in place for non-household WEEE. The producers still have to register, but they have an option to pass on the financing costs for the WEEE arising from their product to the end user. This option can be exercised within the sales contract when the EE was initially sold.

In broad terms, the UK system operates as follows: EE producers must join an approved WEEE compliance scheme; the scheme then arranges for the collection of WEEE and for it to be taken to an Approved Authorised Treatment Facility (AATF). The AATF treats the WEEE and either recovers/recycles the materials arising or arranges for this to be done.

The AATFs issue evidence back to the compliance schemes, which then use this to demonstrate to the environment agencies that they have met their obligations.

Currently the UK has approximately 5,500 EE producers, more than 30 approved compliance schemes and about 250 treatment operators and exporters of WEEE materials.

The original WEEE Directive required retailers of household products to offer in-store take- back schemes. The practicalities linked to this caused the UK to enable an alternative option to be put in place, which is the distributor take-back scheme.

Retailers and distributors that have paid into this scheme gain access to local authority household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) which, in effect, substitute for in-store take-back. 

In addition, other collection points can be set up. In total the UK has around 1,500 collection sites for WEEE - more than most other European countries - and most of these are council-run HWRCs.

The recast directive still has the key objectives of reducing the amount of WEEE going to landfill and requiring producers to finance the recovery and recycling of WEEE. But there are some key changes. Most notable are higher targets on the amounts of WEEE that will need to be collected.

From 2016 the UK will have to achieve a collection rate of 45% of the amount of EE placed on the market. From 2019 this target will increase to 65%. To achieve the earlier target, the UK will need to move up from its current position by around 10 percentage points.

The other key change is the scope of what is covered by the directive, although the changes here do not bite until 2018. Until that point, the current scope arrangements continue with 10 categories, but with the addition of photovoltaic panels into category 4.

From 2018 this will change to an ‘open scope’ arrangement, reported under six categories. Under open scope, anything not covered by one of the specific exclusions will be regarded as ‘in scope’. This will help to remove some of the ambiguity about which EE products are covered by the directive, but will inevitably bring more businesses into the regulatory regime.

The introduction of the regulations has brought into focus how and where WEEE is treated.

The WEEE Directive introduced specific treatment standards, which have been cascaded to treatment operators through conditions included in their Environmental Permits. As part of this requirement, the concept of Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques was introduced. New and novel techniques are now starting to emerge to deal with some of the WEEE streams.

With regards to where WEEE is treated, unfortunately we have seen numerous examples of illegal exports of WEEE, particularly to Africa. Often such exports are masquerading as used EE to avoid regulatory controls placed on the exports of waste.

Illegal export of WEEE is associated with poor recovery operations, data theft, uncontrolled recovery of metals and dumping. The Environment Agency (EA) has established a specialist environmental crime team to tackle illegal exports and is achieving significant success in curbing this activity.

All businesses and public sector organisations need to think about how they dispose of their WEEE, and ensure they understand how their waste is being managed once passed from them to a contractor.

Broken equipment intended for treatment or destruction must be passed as waste to a reputable contractor. You can check with the EA whether the contractor is a registered waste carrier and the destination holds a permit.

Where IT equipment is being disposed of, businesses should ensure they are satisfied that sensitive data has been or will be permanently deleted from the equipment.

It is highly unlikely that we can stop our insatiable desire for new EE technologies, but what we can do is continue to improve the way we manage and recover the waste materials. The WEEE Directive provides the legal framework to push us in this direction.

Chris Grove, Environment Agency senior adviser on producer responsibility

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