The future of WEEE: What lies ahead?

Written by: RWW | Published:

The European Recycling Platform UK held a seminar in June to examine the future of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) with four guest speakers looking at WEEE from the USA to Africa as well as tackling the themes of eco-design and individual producer responsibility. Freelance writer, Claire Col reports.

Plastics represent the last frontier in recycling,” said Dr Mike Biddle, founder and president of MBA Polymers and Material Solutions speaking at the seminar, The Future of WEEE. Indeed, while research shows that annual UK retail sales of electrical products constitutes around 1.4 million tonnes of materials, including 65 tonnes of precious metals, as yet only 7% of waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) are re-used, with around a third going to landfill. According to the panel of speakers however, the future of WEEE may lie in product design as well as collection and treatment standards. 

The European Recycling Platform (ERP) who hosted the event in London, is one of the UK’s recycling schemes, working with clients who include Electrolux and Microsoft. 

The UK is guided by the EU’s WEEE Directives which places responsibility on producers to oversee the collection, treatment and disposal of their market share of EEE by joining a producer compliance scheme and it was the opportunities for businesses and consumers that dominated discussion, exploring WEEE the world over, as well as tackling themes of eco-design and individual producer responsibility along the way.

Dr Biddle struck an optimistic note when it came to talking about WEEE in the US, highlighting the increasing environmental awareness from corporations and voluntary initiatives by the public as positive factors, but he cited patchwork federal legislation and the economy as impediments to the growth. 

However, as the trend for eco-regeneration strategies become corporate priority and closed loop economies become more mainstream, Dr Biddle suggested the impact will become apparent. Walmart has just announced a $100m closed looped recycling fund and Dr Biddle said he believes that trends point towards an inevitable increase of domestic recycling of electronic waste in the US. 

“The sustainability consortium spearheaded by Walmart has attracted a huge amount of partner companies, trying to figure out how to make their supply chains more sustainable, ” he added. 

Indeed, computer giant Dell now use carbon-negative plastics for their product shipments made from mushroom along with making plastic bags from air carbon developed by Newlight Technologies, who harvest methane and landfill gas as a starting point. 

Dell also works with Wistron who are recycling closed-loop plastics, circuit boards as well as batteries. Dr Biddle also noted the important role being played by product design and end-of-life standards, such as the electronic product environmental assessment tool.

Importance of eco-design

Professor Rob Holdway, co-founder and director of Giraffe Innovation, explained how eco-design can have positive economic and environmental effect, while stating it’s still ok to be resource efficient in a linear economy. 

Indeed, he said cost is key to encouraging carbon management. “If it doesn’t save a company money, why are you doing it? There has to be a good commercial business case for using eco-design in the whole supply chain.” And according to Professor Holdway, there often is. He gave the example of a manufacturer who was using cables 45cm longer than required. After reducing the length, they saved £45,000 across annual sales, 3.6 tonnes of material and 110 tonnes of carbon emissions. 

“High value, high status items can use post-consumer recycled materials,” added Professor Holdway, describing how his company is also helping to overcome reluctance to use recycled plastics by showing that cost savings and environmental benefits can be gained without compromising on quality. He cited two luxury brands that now use recycled plastics in their products, as well as emphasising the positive marketing message provided by eco-design. 

However, Prof Holdway’s closing message was unequivocal: “No society, no matter how successful, can make money from a poisoned population and dead planet. In Beijing, the greatest threat to national security isn’t the Americans, it’s actually the quality of life for people in certain cities because of their air quality, and this is a fundamental challenge which needs to be overcome.”

Individual producer responsibility is intended to incentivise design for end of life, but Dr Kieren Mayers at Sony Computer Entertainment, asked: “Why do we bother doing producer responsibility if we don’t have any rewards for design, that’s the elephant in the room.” Dr Mayers suggested that producers should provide leadership with regards to WEEE solutions. Despite obstacles such as producers paying average costs, varying degrees of understanding of environmental issues, and collecting own brand not being practical, he said producers as experts can lead the way in solving these. 

Dr Mayers said IPR must reward good design and emphasised it has to be practicable and cost effective. “It must also be easy to enforce otherwise people will avoid responsibility.” He went on to tell the conference that the EU Directive states that collective schemes could allow for differentiated fees based on how easily products and secondary raw materials contained in them could be recycled, so better cost allocation, reducing cross subsidisation and tax breaks for the use of recycled materials could prove positive, but the legacy cost of existing WEEE also needs to be addressed. 

WEEE disposal

As Africa’s economy continues to grow rapidly, so does its demand for electronics and Dr Kirstie McIntyre, director for Hewlett-Packard’s environmental responsibilities in the Europe, Middle East and Africa region, said that WEEE disposal is key to HP’s corporate responsibilities. 

Indeed since 2008, HP has been working with partners to set up a recycling e-waste programme in Kenya. “We wanted to create a responsible end of life solution in a country where there is no regulation.”

According to McIntyre, e-waste in Africa was creating hazards, not only to the health of the individuals handling it, but also to the environment. “The way that electronics use to be recycled was that kids would go across these massive waste dumps and cut off all the cables from the electronic equipment for the copper content, pile them into a tyre, pour petrol over the lot and set fire to it while standing next to it,” explained Dr McIntyre. 

So HP worked to establish Kenya’s first-ever registered collection network for e-waste with 40 planned collection points. Each collection point is housed in a shipping container and works with a trained network of individuals to bring e-waste to the collection points. 

These entrepreneurial micro-businesses and individual collectors receive payments at global market rates and so was born the East African Compliant Recycling. ECR introduced safer recycling practices, the first in Africa to meet European standards. “Cables from e-waste are no longer burned in Nairobi,” stated Dr McIntyre. 

Moreover, the system ensures that Kenyans working on the project receive a fair price for the recovered materials. “The economics work. We are creating jobs, pulling the recycling material in and the recycler is still able to sell their secondary materials on the global commodities market, but we’ve used the economics to create the right behaviour using an environmentally and socially responsible solution,” added Hewlett-Packard’s director. 

In conclusion, the panel agreed that increased recycling activity, which delivers larger volumes of better quality recycled materials to producers, will incentivise the use of recycled materials and improve product design. This could also have a significant impact on the future of WEEE.

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