Make sure your site doesn't leak WEEE

With scrap metal theft on the rise, valuable WEEE material is now being lifted from the waste stream across Europe - a problem which could soon hit the UK, warns Graham Davy

Much has been said in the national media about how the high price of metal is driving a rise in scrap metal thefts across the UK - something the British Transport Police has been quoted as saying is the second biggest problem after terrorism. Now this problem seems to be moving into the WEEE marketplace, with recyclers in more established European WEEE countries seeing valuable electronics waste being removed from the waste stream.

Leakage from waste streams is not new. It is something that nearly all civic local amenity sites (CLAs) will have experienced over the years - waste with a perceived value being stolen before it is processed, either for personal use or to be sold on. My company Sims Recycling Solutions operates across Europe and we have started to notice first-hand that this problem is growing, with a rise in valuable WEEE being removed from the waste stream.

This isn't as a result of the cherry picking we are used to but, rather a concerted effort by traders and/or illegal operators to cash-in on high prices for materials. In the Netherlands for example, we are seeing outsiders approaching staff at waste collection centres asking them to remove high value items such as computer central processing units, servers and cables, prior to collection or treatment in return for cash.

Once this untreated waste is taken from waste stream, much of it gets shipped out of the EU to countries that do not have the same stringent waste regulation, such as China and African nations such as Nigeria. This practice isn't just happening in the Netherlands, we are seeing it across all the locations we operate in including Belgium and Germany and we expect cases in the UK to come to light in the near future.

With WEEE leaking from the supply chain in this manner, it presents a number of problems to the industry, most notably in relation to volume and cost. For example, when we began collecting WEEE in one European country, as an organisation we factored in losses of 5% to 7% of volume due to WEEE going missing from the waste stream. Now with the value of scrap materials high and the theft of WEEE growing, the leakage is closer to 15%.

Low volumes will push up the price
As a recycler we look to high value material to offset the cost of recycling. The industry quotes on volume of material received and recycled, often with an eye on the perceived value of the material. If the most valuable pieces of WEEE are removed from the waste stream and the volume of material is reduced before it reaches the recycler, then this could make any quote given at the outset of the process incorrect.

The final price could therefore be higher for customers like compliance schemes and their members and those organisations that deal directly with a recycling partner.

The theft of WEEE will also create other side-effects, most notably environmental issues, data security risk and potential negative publicity for those organisations with end-of-life equipment to recycle. Quite simply, missing WEEE defeats the purpose of what the WEEE Directive is trying to achieve. If waste electronic equipment is stolen before it has been treated, any hazardous material will re-enter the mainstream market place, either being resold as fit for use or shipped off to another country for landfill disposal.

Fraud lurks as potential danger
Fraud is also a big issue. When it comes to items such as computer hard drives or servers, if the materials stolen haven't been properly data-wiped, it could lead to people's personal details falling into the wrong hands and identify fraud being committed. If this equipment is subsequently discovered, or worse, any fraud is committed as a result, either the site or facility where the equipment was stolen and the company from which the hardware has come from could come under the media spotlight.

The directive is in its infancy in the UK, but as businesses and consumers become more aware of their obligations, then UK volumes of WEEE will grow dramatically, making the problem of missing WEEE more prevalent. Now is the ideal time for local authorities and recycling facilities to put in place controls to ensure that material does not leak from the WEEE chain. By deploying stricter monitoring systems, reducing the number of people in the supply chain and educating staff about the dangers of untreated waste being removed from the chain, then we as an industry can start to stamp out this threat before it becomes an even bigger problem.

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