Watching your wasteline

An EU directive calls for proper disposal and recycling of our electro-scrap, and the countdown begins to set up a UK collection scheme.

First cars, then fridges and now everything from mobile phones to singing Christmas cards is to fall within the bounds of the EU’s great recycling plan.

According to European Parliament statistics, electro-scrap is piling up at a rate of six million tonnes annually and is the fastest-growing waste stream in the EU. A sizeable amount of this is produced in the UK, increasing by five per cent a year. Nine-tenths of this is disposed of through landfill and incineration, both of which can lead to environmental contamination by substances including lead and cadmium.

As the sale of consumer electronics including mobile phones has boomed, little effort has gone into recycling. Faced with this environmental time bomb, the EU has decided that at last the polluters must pay.

According to legislators, the product manufacturer has the predominant role in producing such waste, as it takes key decisions that determine how a product is made and its waste-management potential. On 10 April MEPs in Strasbourg therefore voted in favour of a law requiring producers to fund the collection and disposal of a wide range of electrical equipment.

The draft law, known as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive demands an average compulsory collection target of 6kg of electro-scrap per inhabitant per year from private homes by December 2005, ushering in the largest recycling programme Europe has ever seen.

The full bill must still receive final approval from the Council of Ministers before each EU government approves the legislation, but this is seen as a formality. The countdown to setting up a nationwide collection scheme must begin if the UK is to avoid the fridge mountains that developed after similar regulations came into force.According to the EEF, previous estimates show the electrical equipment legislation could cost industry up to £1bn per year with an additional one-off cost of up to £5bn to deal with the backlog of previous waste, which must also be dealt with.

A key amendment to the original proposition was a clause stating that manufacturers should only pay for disposal of their own products, rather than having to pay into a pool, which would have increased their burden by forcing them to pay for waste from producers no longer in the market – so-called orphan waste.

Meanwhile, producers must provide an up-front guarantee that they will be able to deal with the cost of product recycling, to prevent the development of ‘free riders’, manufacturers that put environmentally harmful products on the market then disappear, leaving other companies to deal with their recycling.

But during the first 10 years all producers must share the cost of dealing with previous waste according to market share by type of equipment.

While manufacturers are expected to pass charges on to consumers, inflating the price of electrical goods by up to five per cent unless production processes change, this may not be effective in the long term. More environmentally conscious rivals would have lower overheads, allowing them to pass on their savings by lowering unit costs.

This throws down a challenge to engineers: unless manufacturers can come up with ways to design goods that are easier to recycle, their competitiveness may be eroded.

Piero Moscatelli, quality director of Merloni Elettrodomestici, which manufactures Indesit and Ariston appliances, says: ‘We have been using a greater percentage of recyclable products in our manufacturing and at the same time designing our machines so that at the end of their natural life they are easier to disassemble which again helps recycling.’

This design factor is crucial, as the less time it takes to separate a product into its components, the cheaper recycling will be.

The question of how appliances are collected for recycling is also problematic. Under the new legislation, householders will have to sort their waste and separate all electrical goods ready for collection and recycling. But as the manufacturer currently has no relationship with the user, there are concerns about how goods will be reunited with their parent firms, highlighting issues for local authorities, retailers and manufacturers.

‘Since the draft legislation was agreed, a lot of manufacturers and retailers are asking questions about its implications,’ says David Shirley, director of KPMG’s sustainability advisory service. ‘In the case of fridge-freezers there wasn’t a lot of joined-up thinking in evidence. This led to the creation of the appliance mountains, and a lot of effort is being expended to clean these up.’

Peter Carver, director-general of the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances, adds: ‘When you look at the fridge mountain you can see the UK isn’t ready for this.’

The problem is exacerbated by its scale. ‘The legislation will affect everything with an electrical component in it,’ says Labour MEP David Bowe. ‘This includes smaller goods ranging from novelty musical socks to toys. It will herald a complete change in behaviour, bringing us into line with what other countries have begun.’

In Holland and Belgium around 80 per cent of electrical waste is collected at civic authority sites, and retailers are legally obliged to accept new-for-old exchanges. Consumers pay a premium for their appliance’s recycling at the point of sale, which is clearly marked on the till receipt.

Moscatelli says: ‘We believe customers will accept a so-called visible fee charge as they know the change has been introduced to help safeguard the environment. It is also worth considering that any increase will be very small.’

As retailers may be handling the premium there is talk of them also handling the collection. ‘Large unwanted goods such as washing machines used to be collected byretailers when a new item was delivered and then sold on to the developing world, but this is no longer allowed,’ says Simon Tomlinson, director of supply chain consultancy The Logistics Business. ‘However, retailers could instead be paid a fee to provide a service to both the customer and manufacturer. It happens in the US, which isn’t exactly known for its recycling objectives.’

But few consumers would be prepared to carry around their old toasters and kettles to swap when shopping for a new one. Meanwhile, it would take time for local authorities, whose resources are already stretched, to set up collections. ‘A lot of work must be done by the authorities if they are to manage collections,’ says Peter Carver. ‘It isn’t normal behaviour for customers to take small items back to the retailer when they buy new ones.’

While many authorities will face problems with handling the volume of material requiring collection and recycling, some have been keeping their eye on WEEE developments for some time, though this has thrown up quirks of its own. Five years ago West Sussex County Council initiated a trial scheme for the kerbside collection and recycling of electrical goods in the borough of Worthing. However, it quickly ran into problems, following the pilfering of items from collection bins. ‘People seemed to be looking in and saying, ‘that’s a nice hairdryer, I’ll have that’, but some of the items might have been potentially dangerous,’ says council waste strategy manager Julie Wilkinson. ‘As a result we found that drop-off points were the best way to go about things.’

At least one sector should benefit from the new rules, however. The need to recycle home and office computer equipment will provide a boost for companies specialising in their recycling and refurbishment. Phil Reakes, managing director of refurbishment specialist Selway Moore, says that while desktop computers tend to be replaced after two or three years to keep up to date with the latest developments, components from these older units still have a respectable resale value.

‘We can recover enough value from circuit boards and the like to balance having to pay for disposal of other materials,’ he says. ‘Many basic components stay valid for quite some time and can be sold abroad to eastern Europe and Africa where businesses are seeking cheap solutions to carry out basic processing and printing and don’t necessarily require a high-spec PC. Even at home the spare parts market is very buoyant. By understanding asset-management processes, firms can even determine the right time to upgrade and get the best value from resales.’

Meanwhile, a design research team at Sheffield Hallam University’s School of Engineering is tracking hundreds of radio-tagged domestic appliances across Europe to chart their journey from manufacture to end-of-life recovery.

The study, carried out with the help of Sony and Hotpoint, aims to collect information and improve product performance and eventual environmental impact. Factors monitored include a record of how heavily the appliance is used, and details of parts replacement. At the end of the product’s life this data should help decide which components can be recovered and reused.

In the run-up to WEEE’s implementation, manufacturers need to improve product designs to make recycling cost effective and less time consuming. Local authorities and waste specialists must also do likewise. Given this challenge, engineers developing innovations that aid the process stand to reap the profits of the move towards a more environmentally friendly Europe.