E-cycling in Europe - Buried under a mountain

The EU Directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and the RoHS directive relating to the banning of harmful substances are currently being transposed into national law by the EU’s 25 member states. This process has created a bureaucratic nightmare which is not only damaging the recycling sector but also burying the electronics industry under a mountain of costs. The high level of concern engendered by this situation was apparent at the 5th International Electronics Recycling Congress (IERC) which took place recently in Germany.

Extreme pressure on equipment producers has meant that willingness to comply with the environmental protection objectives of new legislation has been replaced by a drive to seek out legal loopholes. In such circumstances, legal advice is becoming far more vital than brilliant recycling technology. And while Europe shoots itself in both feet, China watches as this unfolding drama gradually paralyses one of its major competitors on the world markets. At the same time, the Asian giant continues to secure its supply of valuable scrap.

On the second day of the 5th International Electronics Recycling Congress (IERC), held in the German city of Hamburg from January 18 to 20, a number of delegates literally jumped to their feet at the bombshell dropped by Hélène Fauve-Buresi, Environment Manager of Alcatel and representative of the European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED). Backed by legal advicefrom Prof. Zen Makuch, reader in law at Imperial College, London, CECED claims that cooling equipment containing hydrocarbons (HC) does not have to be de-polluted prior to shredding in the state-of-theart plants designed specifically for extracting ozonedepleting cooling liquids and expanding agents.

According to CECED, once liquids and compressors have been removed, such equipment can be sorted from the main material stream and re-routed directly to, for example, conventional car shredders. This is provided that sufficient safety precautions are in place to deal with explosion and fire risks linked to the release of the highly-flammable HC gases, it says.

Investment in vain?

CECED’s main argument is that HC gases - isobutane in the refrigeration circuit and the cyclo-pentane expanding agent in the insulating foam - present no significant ozone-depleting risk and have a Global Warming Potential (GWP) below the critical mark of 15 stipulated in the WEEE directive. The cooling equipment manufacturers see this argument as an opportunity to alleviate the financial burden imposed by the WEEE directive. However, Europe’s recycling industry is understandably fearful that its directive-driven investment of millions of Euros in developing sufficient capacity for the proper treatment of such equipment will prove to have been in vain.

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