Mitsubishi gives producer responsibility the cool factor

Mitsubishi Electric has joined forces with a leading reprocessor to recover end-of-life air conditioning units in a unique takeback scheme, as Maxine Perella discovers

Partners in recovery: Dean Overton (left) and Martin Fahey examine the metals stream coming out of the optical sorter at Overton's reprocessing plant in Stourbridge

Partners in recovery: Dean Overton (left) and Martin Fahey examine the metals stream coming out of the optical sorter at Overton's reprocessing plant in Stourbridge

Giving an easy route back for customers when it comes to waste disposal and recovery is increasingly important these days. The route should not be just convenient, but environmentally sound. And when producer responsibility doesn't quite stretch that far, well, why not lead from the front and do it yourself?

That is pretty much the philosophy of Mitsubishi Electric (ME), a global manufacturer of, amongst other things, industrial air conditioning units. Such units while falling under electrical waste are not covered by the WEEE Directive in the UK so the company decided to take a proactive approach when it came to their end-of-life scenario.

This has resulted in the form of a partnership with Overton Recycling, a specialist e-waste reprocessor based in Stourbridge. When ME's customers need to dispose of the units, they are offered a free takeback service. The items are collected and dropped off at Overton's reprocessing plant where they are degassed, disassembled and stripped down. Then a thorough recycling and recovery process begins.

Currently, most decommissioned air conditioning units end up in the hands of scrap metal merchants, a largely unregulated sector which has had its fair share of bad press. As ME's sustainable solutions manager Martin Fahey points out, such "loose arrangements" don't sit comfortably alongside the ethos of corporate social responsibility (CSR) among blue chip clients.

"Our corporate end-users wanted an audited, traceable scheme. We had a previous scheme but it was quite limited and there was a charging structure involved - we wanted to go further. As far as I'm aware, we are the only manufacturer of these units now offering a free-at-point-of-collection service, it's pretty unique in the industry," he says.

And in terms of ME's own CSR commitments, it was a natural path to go down. "Our Green Gateway philosophy takes a whole lifecycle view of our equipment. At the end of that cycle, end-of-life, there's a lot of copper and aluminum - valuable raw material that can be passed back into the supply chain - so we wanted to close that loop. And Overton's service gives us that breadth of UK coverage to be able to do that," explains Fahey.

He adds that air conditioning units contain a lot of refrigerant and oil and so it was important to work with a reprocessor who could recover those substances and at the volumes needed from a major corporate such as ME. Both parties have been working together several months to develop such a process that would meet the standards required - as Fahey points out, "our environmental positioning is a differentiator for us".

The technology that Overton employs is highly specialised and boasts recycling rates of 99.1% - what is left over, and still currently goes to landfill, is mostly acoustic foam although end-markets will be sought for this eventually. At the heart of the system is an optical sorter that can separate out very pure streams of copper and aluminum - claimed to be a unique process in the UK, as it enables their recovery to be kept on-site.

"Previously these metals in order to be sorted would have to be baled and sent to China where the Chinese would separate them out, but our process means we can keep it all in-house and it becomes more traceable as a result," explains Overton's business development manager, Gordon Mason.

He adds that because the metals are so pure they can be fed straight into smelters and processed immediately. Meanwhile other materials such as various different polymer types are shredded and granulated down on-site and sold on for use in remanufacture.

For ME, such a solution is a dream. Although it is early days - the manufacturer is just in the process of marketing the takeback scheme to its customers - Overton has already taken in deliveries from National Grid sites as well as its first collection from Marks & Spencer. Non-Mitsubishi units are also collected under the system - ME prides itself on its corporate sustainability; the company slogan is "doing the right thing" according to Fahey.

"We build in the 3R's at a corporate level so if we can manufacture physically smaller equipment, which Mitsubishi being a Japanese company is good at, then already you've used less resource. That's where it has to start, with the raw materials," he says.

"The next thing is to use as much recycled content in our new equipment as we can and we are talking to our suppliers to help support us with this. Then it's all about end-of-life and closing the loop ... and if at some point this process can recover enough secondary raw material for us at the volumes needed, then who knows, maybe we could look at feeding that directly back into our own operations."

Maxine Perella is editor of edieWaste


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| producer responsibility | supply chain | WEEE | manufacturing

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Waste & resource management
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