IKEA shines a light on electrical waste

When it comes to recycling tricky items like lightbulbs and batteries, perhaps no other retailer is better switched on than IKEA. Luke Walsh finds out why.

Recycling is not yet a perfect science, as Maree Hutchinson is well aware. But once she has cleared the bins of apple cores and half-chewed hot dogs, not to mention cleaned up the graffiti, it's still worthwhile. Hutchinson is manager of Lakeside IKEA, Essex branch of the Swedish furniture store chain. Five years ago she was responsible for introducing recycling bins to her shop, and now they are in all 17 IKEAs across the UK.

While they take cans, paper, cardboard and plastics, the biggest benefit these mini-centres bring to the recycling effort are by giving people somewhere convenient and trustworthy to take their batteries and lightbulbs, the tricky electrical items. Last year the Lakeside store alone recycled 1,290kg of lightbulbs (regular and low energy), 500kg of batteries and 850kg of other electricals, all collected by Manchester-based Mercury Recycling.

"I stole the idea on a visit to one of our stores in Sweden," recalls Hutchinson. "It looked professional and slick and sexy, and I wanted that for Essex! It cost about £2,500 to put it in, and we have invested a lot of money in balers for the cardboard and plastics, so that we can do all that on site. We don't earn anything from the recycling but it's something IKEA has been doing internationally for 12 years."

She adds: "Customers are aware now that they can bring their recycling here and they come from all over with their batteries and lightbulbs. While we don't make publicity out of it, our customers get a good feeling from it."

New lamps for old

Gateshead IKEA on Tyneside has taken recycling another step forward as the pilot site for a pioneering 'new lamps for old' scheme. The initiative came from WEEELite, a producer compliance joint venture between electricial recycling specialist Weeeco and energy-saving lightbulb manufacturer Megaman, which supplies IKEA with all its compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs, as energy-saving bulbs are known in the trade).

WEEELite audited the site to assess how existing practices could be improved and costs reduced, which resulted in the creation of a single storage point for returned lamps to be collected by Weeeco. Light fittings have the bulbs taken out and the plugs cut off to enable both to be reused, and the copper cable is stripped for recycling. Household appliances coming back to the store go to a local social enterprise so they also have the chance of being reused.

WEEELite also gave the store advice on signage and staff training to improve recycling efficiency, and with everything in place 'new lamps for old' was ready to roll. The idea came from a meeting between Vince Eckerman, Weeeco's compliance director, and Mark Bryant, Megaman's retail director, who were both concerned at the number of CFLs being returned unused to retailers - 5% of the total. Neither could believe the returns could all be down to faulty bulbs.

After collecting returns from B&Q stores over four weeks it was discovered that two-thirds were fully functional. It meant a potential 250,000 bulbs could be rescued from UK retailers over a year. Working CFLs recovered from Gateshead IKEA - plus nearly 400 other retailers that have joined the scheme - are donated to charities and housing associations to help people afford the conversion from incandescent to low-energy bulbs.

"It's only when you scrutinise what we do with our waste resources that you see the opportunity for reuse as a principle," says Eckerman. "We all missed the fact that good lamps were going for recovery when a more environmentally sound solution could be put in place. With Gateshead, CFLs disposed of in the North-east are being reused in the North-east."

Weeeco would like to hear from charities and housing associations who would like to benefit from the 'new lamps for old' scheme and retailers who have still to put in place a system of testing its CFL returns before disposal.

Targeting energy efficiency

The customer recycling bins found at IKEA stores fit well with the environmental ethos of the company. Figures for 2008 show 72% of IKEA's products were made from renewable materials while its stores worldwide recycled, reclaimed or converted to energy 85% of waste materials. Incandescent lighting products will be phased out during 2010.

Under the slogan 'IKEA goes renewable', the retailer is working to improve its own energy efficiency by 25% compared with 2005 levels, and its long-term ambition is to run all its stores, distribution centres, factories and offices, entirely on renewable energy. All new buildings are designed to use biofuels, geothermal heat, solar or wind power, and where possible existing buildings are being adapted.

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