The relentless advance of consumer electronics, and people’s desire to have the latest devices, means that many households are harbouring broken or unwanted gadgets.
Capturing and disposing of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) remains high on the waste agenda, with new regulations pending to tackle this as a difficult waste stream with a high recycling value.
In many cases, local authorities have responded by creating small WEEE collection points within their household waste recycling centres (HWRCs). These rely on residents remembering to bring such items to the site. Some councils also mount occasional or one-off small WEEE drives - but not on a scheduled basis at the kerbside.
Waste composition analysis and anecdotal evidence convinced Biffa there must be an opportunity to help councils divert small domestic WEEE from landfill. This was reinforced by research that showed most of the company’s customer councils were interested in small WEEE recycling.
The challenge was to design and implement a practical, effective and cost-efficient way of collecting small domestic WEEE from the doorstep or property boundary.
Biffa’s concept is a scheduled and regular kerbside service that should quickly become part of normal collection schedules. By offering doorstep collections, it gives residents more opportunity to recycle small but sometimes weighty WEEE rather than consigning it to waste bins or providing problems for those without vehicles to take it to the HWRC.
The idea is simple: residents put out small domestic WEEE in carrier bags alongside their normal refuse or recycling containers on relevant collection days. Biffa’s crews collect these bags as part of normal collection duties, placing them in vehicle under-body cages. Cage contents are then decanted into dedicated bins or skips at Biffa’s depot, and bulk loads are transported to an authorised WEEE reprocessor through Biffa’s compliance scheme, Transform.
For southern councils running the service, the reprocessor is Lewes-based MDJ Light Bros, while WEEE from northern councils goes to EMR in Liverpool.
Biffa agreed the initiative early in 2011, around the time of the launch of a Government-backed funding stream for tackling WEEE. The distributor take-back scheme Local Project Fund (LPF), administered on behalf of electrical retailers, offered grants of up to £30,000 towards a council’s start-up costs for a new WEEE collection service.
Biffa took the idea, plus grant funding insights, to three borough council clients - Woking, Surrey Heath and Swale - and all applied successfully for funding. For these three councils, the service was cost-neutral.
Operating costs can be kept low for councils without grants. Biffa earns income from the sale of WEEE to reprocessors and from recycling evidence notes certified by Transform. This income helps offset the company’s costs for WEEE collection, handling, storage and bulk haulage.
Woking Borough Council decided to start its service before it received its April 2012 grant and Biffa agreed to cover initial start-up costs. The council’s service, based on weekly collections of small WEEE and batteries with refuse or recycling, rolled out in December 2011.
A communications programme informed residents of the collection service’s impending start. Every household received an information leaflet, collection calendar and pink plastic bag for the first collection. Thereafter, ordinary carrier bags were used.
In April this year, Surrey Heath and Swale councils launched their LPF grant-funded, Biffa-managed services. Again, residents leave out small WEEE in carrier bags alongside their usual recycling and refuse. Surrey Heath’s WEEE is collected fortnightly with recycling rounds, while Swale collects it as part of weekly refuse or recycling rounds.
Swale used local media coverage and vehicle signage to inform residents of its new service, while Surrey Heath relied on local press releases as well as Rosei, a promotional ‘elephant’ built out of WEEE that toured schools and community groups before being placed in the local museum. The council also gave away mini pink bins for recycling batteries.
Stafford Borough Council introduced Biffa’s service in April this year, and promotion of the service, which collects WEEE as part of fortnightly recycling rounds, was achieved with an information leaflet for residents.
Resident leaflets and bin hangers were also used by Mole Valley District Council when it launched its service, which collects WEEE and textiles on alternate weeks.
Has the initiative delivered? Resoundingly, yes.
Since its launch, Woking has collected just over 25 tonnes of small WEEE and almost two tonnes of batteries. A TV amnesty linked to the digital switchover also recovered around nine tonnes of TV sets.
Since April, Stafford has recovered some 17 tonnes of WEEE and about 500kg of waste batteries, while Swale and Surrey Heath have collected nearly 13 tonnes of small WEEE between them. Early results from Mole Valley indicate nearly 2.5 tonnes have been collected.
Compared with general recycling volumes, these tonnages may seem small - but they reflect the successful and growing diversion of a new domestic waste stream through Biffa’s innovation.
This diversion has meant a significant reduction in the landfilling of WEEE which has a potentially long environmentally toxic life, and the recovery of high- value components and materials for recycling, reuse and remanufacture. No wonder an increasing number of councils are interested in the concept.
Biffa development director, Pete Dickson
What the councils say
Alan Turner, contracts and procurement manager at Swale Borough Council, said the council took up Biffa’s idea because it would benefit residents: “While we had not really considered WEEE collections, no real persuasion was needed.”
He said the process ran smoothly and was well-received, adding “this reflects the partnership nature of our relationship with Biffa”.
Beryl Hunwicks, portfolio holder for waste and recycling at Woking Borough Council, said: “We are thrilled that residents have embraced the new WEEE service and are diverting tonnes away from landfill. This should help push the borough’s recycling rate past 60%.”
Frank Finlay, cabinet member for the environment at Stafford Borough Council, described the new service’s early performance as “extraordinary”.
He added: “This is a far better way of disposal compared with sending WEEE to landfill, which is expensive and horribly wasteful.”