WEEE: What’s the real secret to waste hierarchy compliance?
It is the fastest-growing waste stream in the world, meaning WEEE rarely leaves the resource industry’s headlines. But evolving laws have shone an even brighter spotlight on e-waste over the last 12 months. So, in the face of mounting regulatory pressures, how can operators and producers guarantee legislative and environmental compliance, whilst keeping a keen eye on the bottom line? Marcus Brew, managing director of UNTHA UK, recently offered his thoughts to Waste Management World…
Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) has long been a tightly regulated market, and rightly so. Legislation has existed since the early 2000s to drive recovery progress, encourage producers to take greater responsibility for their role in the supply chain, and to clamp down on illegal trade.
The magnitude of this waste problem, on a global scale, means that legislation continues to evolve. The apparent ‘throwaway’ mindset exhibited in modern society – particularly when it comes to must-have gadgets – adds extra pressure to an already challenging problem. Directive amendments are therefore continuing to step things up.
The law has to recognise the growing variety of electrical equipment now available in the market, for instance, which probably explains the need for Open Scope rules. But legislation is sure to become tighter still over time, if countries fail to reach the recovery targets set. The UK – whilst far from the greatest performer – is not the only culprit here.
However, in the face of ever-changing rules, it is crucial that the industry remembers there’s more to savvy WEEE handling than collection compliance alone. It is important to consider what happens to the recovered waste too, if all this effort is to really mean something.
Whilst it should be a given that this inherently hazardous material stream needs to be handled by a professional, ethical and specialist operator, the illegal export of e-waste has unfortunately been reported as a significant industry problem over the years. There are probably two causal factors at play here. Firstly, many people simply don’t know how to deal with this complex waste. So, in the face of targets that they fear they cannot meet, they ship the materials overseas to become someone else’s problem. Elsewhere – and secondly – other people readily acknowledge the level of high-value precious metals that are locked away within e-waste, so they take almost any route to access, salvage and sell the gold, silver and palladium etc.
However, these catalysts for unscrupulous e-waste handling can have catastrophic consequences. If not managed by a competent, licensed facility, there is a risk that many of the inherently hazardous substances within WEEE could end up in the general waste stream. If water courses became contaminated for example, this would put surrounding communities at significant risk. There have also been reports of children in developing countries manually handling these waste streams, which exposes them to harmful contaminants. This cannot continue.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
It is an age-old saying that many industry professionals probably recite weekly. But this mantra must remain at the fore during the WEEE recovery process.
So, assuming e-waste does pass through a compliant collection chain, it is then important to think about the best-practice methodologies that should be executed to ensure maximum environmental gain.
Of course, in an ideal world, people would hold on to their equipment for longer. And many consumers are becoming more ‘eco’ in their thinking and behaviour. But habits are hard to reshape, which means reuse needs to remain in sharp focus for operators.
In many cases, seemingly outdated goods may be unwanted but still in perfect working order or suitable for resale following a safety inspection and repair. Their refurbishment should therefore be prioritised, providing they are stored correctly prior to being handled – being left outdoors in a cage and exposed to the elements will only lead to quality deterioration.
Beyond that, maximum recyclate recovery rates should be the next-step goal. An effective material liberation strategy should therefore be devised, so that the valuable commodities such as gold and copper can be extracted, segregated and re-inserted into the supply chain.
WEEE recycling methodologies
The manual breakdown of equipment, by trained professionals, is often the preferred methodology. This approach is admittedly labour- and time-intensive, however the high value nature of the materials inside means that this may be a worthwhile exercise.
When it is not commercially viable to manually strip back the WEEE or gain access to all the component parts, a shredding operation can be designed to release these valuable recyclates. Some specialist operators have traditionally opted for a hammer-mill machine, which works by smashing aggregate material into smaller pieces using repeated impact blows. However, such equipment is typically high speed, which can create a significant amount of dust. Not only is this dust worthless, which limits the fiscal and environmental gain from the process, it can also pose a fire or operator wellbeing risk. Hammer mills also cannot usually achieve the particle refinement required for downstream separation technologies to effectively do their recycling job.
A four-shaft shredder with screen, on the other hand, will systematically break the WEEE down to ensure the production of a homogenous fraction. Ideally, the technology should be high torque and slow speed, for reduced dust, low wear, increased uptime and added efficiency.
For an extremely sophisticated turnkey solution, the operator should also consider the integration of an overband magnet to help extract ferrous metals, an eddy current separator (ECS) to separate out any non-ferrous metals, and an optical sorter to finally clean anything that the ECS has not already refined.
The business case
More comprehensive WEEE handling systems naturally represent a greater upfront investment. However, if the operator is driven by commercial factors – and they are running a business after all – it is important to think about the likely payback, not just the upfront price tag of the system. The revenue yield will soon cover the initial capital outlay. After that, everything is largely profit.
Then there is the ‘green’ agenda to consider. E-waste is a staggeringly worrying problem on a global scale, and if its creation cannot be reduced at source, more effort needs to be exerted to better manage it. This is not a simple landscape, but some answers do exist.