WEEE – aren’t materials too precious to lose?


Courtesy of UNTHA UK LTD

Chris Oldfield, managing director of UNTHA UK, was interviewed by leading journal MRW magazine recently, on the subject of WEEE. Drawing upon his specialist industry insight he commented on the methodology used to process WEEE and the extent to which the sector needs to go ‘back to basics’ to ensure precious materials are not lost.

Conversation surrounding recyclate quality has become louder recently, no doubt given the advent of TEEP in January. Whilst many would argue the introduction of TEEP leaves a lot to be desired – largely because its parameters have not been clearly defined in England – at least it has put material recovery in the spotlight once more.

However one area that I feel does merit further attention is WEEE. Organisations such as the WEEE Forum are working hard to tackle Europe’s electronic waste challenge, not least because illegal WEEE trade has the potential to create significant health risks and environmental damage. But it must also be noted that WEEE is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, so the greater the level of electrical equipment we dispose of, the more valuable resources we lose.

Very few people would dispute the value of precious metals such as gold and palladium. Why then, when it comes to the recovery of such critical materials, is performance, on the whole, so insufficient?

For too long the somewhat lazy or dismissive mind-set of complex WEEE being ‘someone else’s problem’, has overridden the tendency to reuse, repair, recycle and recover electrical equipment and its component parts, especially in our domestic nation. The carbon impact of WEEE being shipped to the other side of the world for recycling, is crazy. Plus, in taking this route, we fail to harness the value of increasingly scarce resources that we should be working hard to protect.

I think a lack of understanding regarding best practice WEEE processing methods, also plays its part. So what should the methodology be? As with many areas of business, a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not apply. Yet there are some underlying principles that could have a real influence on the level of precious materials that can be yielded from WEEE.

In alignment with the waste hierarchy, the reuse and repair of electrical equipment should be prioritised in the first instance, so it never becomes ‘waste’. When this is unfeasible, WEEE needs to be carefully pre-treated so that hazardous materials can be removed. The controlled dismantling of WEEE, by hand, will then ensure the highest proportion of critical materials is salvaged.

As the managing director of a waste machinery manufacturer it may seem odd that I am encouraging manual practices. But a keen eye and precise touch are required to extract precious metals and other easily accessible recyclates, which can then be sold for re-insertion into new manufacturing processes.

Thereafter, mechanical processing plays its role. WEEE can be shredded to liberate the materials and produce a homogenous fraction, which can then be thoroughly sorted using advanced separation equipment. Such segregated material streams result in higher quality end recyclates, which will achieve greater revenue.

The encouraging sign is that there are many responsible – and also incredibly profitable – organisations, successfully tackling WEEE in this manner. A number of facilities in Germany, for example, bear greater resemblance to sophisticated manufacturing plants, than traditional waste centres. They are clean, efficient and incredibly well designed, with intuitive technology complementing the work of skilled operatives. Thankfully, bit by bit, the UK is following suit, but we need to step it up. There is wealth in waste, and so many materials within WEEE really are precious.

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