EU e-waste collection boosted by legislative revision

Written by: RWW | Published:

The increasing volume of WEEE is recognised by the European Commission as the most rapidly growing waste, therefore it is seen as an environmental concern. The latest revision of WEEE 2 Directive (2012/19/EU) emphasises a much higher rate of collection, recovery, and recycling. Monika Chrusciak reports.

Europe is an established global leader in waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) recycling solutions with the most technically advanced and commercially applied technologies. The success has resulted from tight cooperation between private companies and the public sector and has led to high collection rates of WEEE in terms of WEEE kg per capita collected. Although the European debt (2009) crisis has had a negative influence on sales of electronic goods, it has had a marginal impact on the current rate of e-waste generated. Typical European average of ‘end of useful time’ for electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is around 10 years. 

Considerable challenge

The collection and recycling targets are relatively less of a concern for the majority of Western and Northern European countries. 

They represent, however, a considerable challenge for Eastern and Southern member states of the EU. This regional disparity in terms of market development can also be related to the prevalent business models, collection schemes and also the complexity of material in WEEE streams. 

WEEE is a complex waste stream, which consists of a multilayered structure of recyclables, inert, hazardous and even organic materials. 

In a typical mix of household WEEE, there is an expected mix of materials such as non-ferrous metals, glass, batteries, printed circuit boards and many more.

E-waste also presents vast logistical challenges such as collection and storage containers, as well as transport requirements. 

Its density (kg/m3) depends on the type and origin of material and requires specific and customised containers, transport, storing and also sorting solutions. According to the latest Frost & Sullivan research titled European Waste Electrical and Electronics Equipment Recycling Market, about seven Mton of WEEE was generated in 2012 and the volume is expected to steadily grow by 3.2% each year. Only four Mton of WEEE was collected and the rest appears to have been treated and disposed of outside the legal framework in the unorganised or grey market. 

Collection methods are forecast to improve and increase collection rates by about 55% to reach WEEE volumes of six Mton by 2020.

Nearly 90% of the collected WEEE can potentially be recycled; however this target is yet to be achieved by the recycling industry across Europe. 

Two steps

The most common WEEE recycling process consists of two steps, where the first serves for the categorisation and sorting of WEEE and the second is based on shredding and downstream material separation and recovery. 

The WEEE passes through a combination of shredder and precious material recovery systems (PMR). The PMR systems separate precious materials (such as precious metals, high grade plastics or mix of valuable fractions) from the processed waste stream. 

The mechanical devices in this system are based on the process of sieving (trommel), ballistic separation, air classification (Zig-Zag or counter-current), dry separation (magnetic separation, induction Eddy current), optical separation based on near infra-red (NIR), visible spectrum (VIS), or x-ray, wet separation (density difference) and manual sorting. Waste separation and processing activities might negatively influence human health and safety. 

An interesting solution provided by ZenRobotics (a Finnish company) offers fully automated sorting. The solution named ZenRobotics Recycler is based on artificial intelligence software coupled with smart robotic arms grippers that can recognise and effectively separate waste streams. The WEEE recycling process is based on several individual processes which are united in one chain and depend on material composition and its complexity. 

WEEE requires relatively sophisticated recycling solutions and its development is driven by recycling companies’ needs. 

Although WEEE volume is clearly growing, recycling companies understand the future challenges related to quality assurance where miniaturisation, multi-functionality and decreasing volume of precious material content in EEE are a threat. 

The European WEEE recycling market is relatively fragmented and comprises of around 1500 recycling companies. The market is expected to witness consolidation in the medium to long term and promote promising business opportunities where companies with unique business strategy or innovative recycling solutions are able to provide highly competitive prices and services. 

Intense competition among Tier 1 WEEE management companies has led them to seek efficient processing solutions that also lower environmental impact and, most importantly, offer tangible benefits on the specific cost of internal treatment (measured in € per ton). 

The current European WEEE market landscape is unequally developed, with most advanced solutions and technologies provided in Northern and Western part of Europe. 

South Europe and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe are in strong need to introduce effective WEEE recycling schemes to match up with the high standards of the other countries. These regions are still in the development stages of growth. 

Factors hindering growth

There are several factors that are hindering growth of WEEE recycling. One of the strongest factors is misinterpretation of the WEEE Directive at the country level legislation. 

Consequently, this has led to a lack of consistency in sector approach and resulted in restrained rate of market growth. Additionally, the lack of a clear WEEE management vision has posed a key bottleneck in developing a strong roadmap for market growth. 

Another drawback is related to the fluctuating prices of precious materials and also quality of downstream material, where inclusions such as sand, plastics, and other materials, negatively impact final price.

To overcome the above mentioned material challenges, the market participants need to understand that the quality and quantity of WEEE material can be closely monitored and controlled with closer cooperation with the customer. Securing both the quality and quantity of WEEE material is crucial to confirm success in the market.

Although mentioned points are strongly influencing the market, there are still several very strong driving forces for future growth of WEEE recycling services market.

The strongest market driver is the WEEE 2 Directive 19/2012/EU where WEEE material is restricted by certain collection and recycling levels. Additional legislative drivers are the content of Hazardous Waste (RoHS Directive 2011/65/EU), Landfill Directive 31/1999/EC and product Eco Design specifications (Directive 2009/125/EC). The WEEE Directive is the strongest driver for the WEEE recycling market where nearly all EU countries are obligated to reach 80% of collection and 85% of recycling levels of WEEE by 2018. 

Moreover, Europe is restricting its landfilling activities, with respect to type of waste (content of calorific value (CV), total organic content (TOC) etc in MSW) and also by number and size of landfill sites. 

Increasing scarcity of precious metals and rising price of primary materials are gradually convincing companies to potentially invest in urban mining from WEEE material. 

To summarise, Frost & Sullivan forecasts significant opportunities for investment in the European WEEE recycling market from 2013 to 2020. The market will remain extremely positive towards technological innovations in sorting, recycling, implementation of sustainable practices and waste by-product saving solutions. 


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