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Reuse Is Not the Answer

David Adams is director of the WEEE compliance scheme Econo-Weee, and founder of the Recycle with Clarity initiative.

On the 4th October 2011, the European Parliament Environment Committee voted in favour of an 85% target for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) collection. This is a significantly higher target figure than previously proposed. If subsequently approved by the plenary European Parliament, which is due to meet in January 2012, this target will come into force in 2016. Included in this recast of the EU WEEE Directive is a separate target of 5% reuse. Whilst the 85% target will bring its own challenges, the reuse target has alarms ringing already.

There are arguments both for and against the reuse of WEEE in the UK. Only four years ago the norm in this country was to send most obsolete electronics into landfill. Fast forward to 2011 and the industry is vocally against export into Africa as there are no recycling processes in place to deal with the EEE when it becomes waste. On Monday 24th October, the high-profile trial began in relation to the Environment Agency’s biggest ever WEEE export case – relating to 158 tonnes of hazardous WEEE being shipped to Nigeria. The Environment Agency has confirmed that illegal WEEE exports are high on its agenda as part of its attempts to tackle crime in the waste industry.

The disposable culture of the West is constantly generating items that are considered obsolete or out of fashion sometimes only a few months after purchase. Many of these items when discarded could continue to function, and it could be argued that that when reused they can be given a new lease of life.  Our desire for flat screen TVs has seen an enormous increase in the volume of old style CRTs being disposed of, many of which are still in working order.  We have a moral high ground that these items should not be shipped out to countries with little or no recycling infrastructure when in reality a television that is only two years old could entertain a family in developing countries for many years to come.

The demand for re-usable electronics in the UK is low; go into any charity show that specialises in electronics and you will find walls of CRT TVs that remain unsold.  We must ask ourselves, as long as we are able to purchase brand new products from a supermarket for very little, why should we reuse at all?  Certainly any organisation that concentrates on mass re-use needs to look overseas to find a market for the products and this is where the main problem lies.  Even re-use businesses that claim that items are sold in the UK are usually selling to another T11 company and these to another; here the audit ends and there can be no guarantee that the items remain in the UK.

The UK recycling infrastructure for dismantling and recycling electronic waste down to its component parts is still running well below capacity, with most WEEE reprocessing plants running at less than 50%.
From a compliance scheme operator’s perspective, we have major concerns around the auditing of re-use specialists.  Our experience has shown that many operators spring up overnight, claim high WEEE collection rates, and will consider an item reusable if it is in working order, regardless of age or condition. By doing so they are then able to issue evidence directly into the WEEE system.

Unlike AATFs that may have spent millions of pounds developing plants to recycle items, reuse specialists have very little comparative outlay and can step in and out of the regulations very quickly. The Recycle with Clarity initiative does support a small amount of reuse through its partners, but only in targeted projects, such as charities, or small community projects supporting those on low incomes.

Recycle with Clarity does not support a higher reuse target, as it becomes far more likely that the items will indeed end up exported abroad. We do not believe there is a genuine large scale market in the UK for these items.
The standard of the refurbishment must also be called into question, and the introduction of PAS141 has done little to alleviate the problems. The age of the items, and therefore the remaining lifespan, must be taken into account, as well as the inferior quality, and the efficiency of the product. TVs from 10 years ago were far less energy efficient than anything being manufactured today.

If, as so often is the case, we are forced to adopt the changes, there are bound to be a wave of new opportunist businesses spring up overnight.

Econo-Weee will only look to partner with companies that can demonstrate high moral alongside quality standards, who are willing to open up their books to mass balance scrutiny and are honest with their reporting.  A solution may be for already established AAFTs to start reuse arms, guaranteeing the quality of their evidence.

My fear is, as is already probably the case, other less scrupulous schemes will simply pick up unchecked evidence and trade it into the viable plans of other schemes forced to find a home for every available tonne. The case of “buyer beware” will be greater than ever.

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