Electrical goods could one day be made largely of recycled materials with the help of a UK-funded programme.
The Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), which focused on plastic packaging when it was founded in 2000, is now helping manufacturers turn material from discarded electrical goods into new products. The project aims to save raw material and production costs.
Indesit, the first company to join the programme, recently introduced recycled content into its Hotpoint Aquarius and Ultima washing machines. The back access ports of the washing machines are now covered with a plate made of recycled ABS, a thermoplastic.
The material was produced from shredded plastic waste recovered from UK fridges, and was formed into a high-grade polymer that has a similar weight to the original plastic it is replacing.
The WRAP co-ordinators claim the washing machines are the first large-scale white electrical goods that incorporate recycled material derived from the UK waste stream.
Gerrard Fisher, WRAP project manager, said the source of inspiration for this work was the EU’s Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which came into force in the UK in January 2007. The directive makes it mandatory to treat and dispose of waste electrical and electronic equipment in an ecologically friendly way at sites across Europe.
‘We thought we could develop a market for the materials from these waste products to give them value and to encourage their recycling,’ he said.
WRAP partnered with Axion Recycling, a company that turns waste into high-grade material by collecting shredded electrical and electronic equipment from WEEE treatment sites across the UK and sorting through the metals and plastics in the mix.
Axion Recycling’s processing equipment includes magnets for pulling out ferrous metal and optical sensors for sifting out non-white plastics. The company also has techniques for measuring the density of plastic so it is possible to separate polypropylene, high-impact polystyrene and ABS. After separation, the plastic can be moulded into high-grade polymer.
Fisher said WRAP and Axion Recycling approached many manufacturers before Indesit but it was difficult to get companies to accept the idea of incorporating recycled content in their products. ‘It was low on their agenda,’ he added. ‘From a recycling point of view, their focus was on end of life rather than how they could get recycled materials into their product.’
Other concerns for the WRAP team were consumer attitudes. ‘There used to be the assumption that recycled material meant lower quality,’ said Fisher. ‘However, the consumer attitude surveys we did showed that consumers were highly tolerant of recycled content.
‘And although it might not swing their purchasing decision they would certainly have a better opinion of the company that used it.’
The positive consumer feedback was just one of the reasons Indesit decided to get involved with WRAP. Other reasons included the environmental aspect and potential cost savings.
Fisher said he was impressed that Indesit was able to use higher-quality polymer at a lower overall cost. ‘Indesit replaced cheap propylene cover plates with expensive plastic ABS cover plates and still saved money,’ he said.
The cost savings add up, Fisher said, when one considers that the new cover plates were installed on 500,000 washing machine units manufactured in Wales.
He added that the company is considering using recycled content in parts other than the cover plate of washing machines. The cover plate, while not a high-risk part, was a good place to test the performance of the plastic.
‘Both from a production and design point of view they’ve validated this plastic so now they can assess where else they want to use it within the machine,’ he added.
Fisher suggested electrical goods could be made largely from recycled content in the near future.
‘Washing machines already have a high content anyway because they are made with steel, which is highly recycled,’ he said. ‘It’s great buying recycled content but it would be nice if consumers knew they were buying it.’
Fisher believes part of his team’s job will be to make consumers more aware. The WRAP team plans a batch of retail trials in the future. ‘We want to check out whether this consumer attitude we picked up plays out on the shop floor,’ he said.
Project aims to save raw materials and production costs by incorporating waste from fridges into electrical appliances such as washing machines. Siobhan Wagner reports.