The material value in waste electrical and electronic equipment at its end of life is why 100 per cent of these items must be collected for recycling, says waste prevention manager at the East London Waste Authority, and co-chair at the London Recycling Officers Group, Mariam Ajadi Bajulaiye.
In October 2021, a team of London Recycling Officers Group (LROG) members visited the Sweeep Kuusakoski facility in Sittingbourne, Kent. Sweeep is a large-scale waste electronics recycler, processing around 150 tonnes of broken electronic gadgets a day.
The purpose of the trip was not only to understand the technical process of the mandatory recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), but to raise awareness of London’s rising WEEE waste arisings.
The site visit gave LROG members an opportunity to see the scale of the challenge created by rising amounts of WEEE. It also gave them the chance to consider how to implement communications and engagement activities to promote more sustainable consumption of electrical items, and drive up local repair and reuse of electrical products, in the lead up to London Repair Week and International Repair Day in October 2021.
You’d think the combined voice of 12 UK local government LROG ambassadors, representing a London-wide waste and resource efficiency support network, could easily achieve these objectives. Well, we soon discovered a rather complex loop of WEEE material flow, from when an electrical item is purchased from a retail store through to its disposal phase.
Justin Greenaway, commercial manager at Sweeep, facilitated three group tours and talked through the stages and processes within the Sittingbourne WEEE recycling plant:
- All recoverable WEEE from designated collection facilities and some large private sector firms – such as banks in London and the southeast of England – is sent to Sweeep at the products’ end of life phase.
- According to WEEE legislation,1 the facility operates a combination of large-scale shredding technologies for equipment without a screen – such as washing machines and radios – and a manual disassembly process for equipment with a screen, such as computers and televisions. The facility processes around 4,000 screens every day – or 1.25 million a year.
- All household WEEE without a screen is broken into large chunks and loaded onto a conveyor belt for pre-sorting. This stage entails hand-picking items such as circuit boards, wood and LCD acid batteries to maximise value recovery and reduce issues further along the processing line.
- The WEEE is passed through a phased shredding system, where further material-separation techniques are applied to derive a breakdown of different types of materials. According to WEEE legislation, this stage of recycling is the last resort after durable WEEE has been extracted for reuse, repair and refurbishment. Table 1 depicts 18 material streams recovered from WEEE recycling. These can be sent for further processing or directly substituted for new resources as recycled products.
I was surprised to learn that a tiny piece of electrical and electronic equipment could comprise at least 10 different material streams. The material value left in WEEE at its end of life is why 100 per cent of these items must be collected for recycling, not sent to landfill or other end-of-life waste treatment options.
The carbon impact of the Sweeep recycling plant is significant, too; for every tonne of WEEE recycled, an equivalent of two tonnes of CO2e emissions are saved.
Did you know that only 30 per cent of all household electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) placed in the market gets successfully collected for recycling in the UK?2 This statistic left some of us wondering: ‘where, and how, does the remaining 70 per cent get treated at its end of life?’
The LROG visit coincided with International Repair Day. If EEE gets transported outside the UK while still in its use phase, as reusable goods, is there appropriate recycling and collection infrastructure designed to recover value from the exported EEE at its end of life? The UK generated 1.5 million tonnes of WEEE – about 23.9kg per person – in 2019, but only 17 per cent was recycled. Similarly, in the same year, the United States generated 6.92 million tonnes of WEEE – about 21kg per person – but it only recycled 15 per cent of the material.3
As LROG members, we must start local by ensuring every piece of EEE still in its use phase is diverted to good causes for reuse, repair or refurbishment.
Some questions alluded to the international challenges of WEEE recycling. A developed country such as the UK is bound by strict environmental legislation that requires collection and recycling processes to be established. In other parts of the world, however, the processing of e-waste remains informal and unregulated, as highlighted to the group through a picture diary of e-waste recycling in Ghana.
Within an international context, WEEE that ends up in landfills that are not properly engineered contain heavy metals and ozone-depleting substances that contribute to soil degradation, contamination of underground potable water sources and climate change – not only within its local context, but also on a global scale. The resource loss is significant, as outlined by the United Nations, which states that ‘£2bn worth of gold currently lies in landfill’.
Within the UK context, doing our bit as LROG members is crucial. Various discussions led the team to realise that one of the challenges hindering a circular economy material flow of WEEE is the difficulty in collecting this waste stream. As LROG members, we must start local by ensuring every piece of EEE still in its use phase is diverted to good causes for reuse, repair or refurbishment.
This could include building collaborative partnership working opportunities with local third-sector reuse and repair organisations, via waste-prevention programmes, and using our communication action plans to design campaigns that will help residents get WEEE out of black sacks and/or disposal routes.
- The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations 2013, www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2013/3113/contents/made
- Anecdotal reference quoted by Justin Greenaway, commercial manager at Sweeep Kuusakoski Facility, on 14 October 2021.
- The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020, www.globalewaste.org
Note: 1 pound = 0.000454 tonnes. So, 46 pounds is equivalent to 20.9kg of WEEE generated per person in the United States.