A WEEELLY Happy Birthday

1st July 2010 saw the WEEE Directive celebrate its third birthday. It shares this event with the smoking ban, but if we consider the impact these legislations have had on the public psyche, it's clear that while few would consider lighting up in a shopping centre, most wouldn't think anything of putting their dud hairdryer out with the household waste.

So, has the directive delivered what it promised and where do we go from here? Patrick Watts, managing director of leading WEEE recycler, SWEEEP/Kuusakoski, takes a closer look.

The implementation of the WEEE Directive was welcomed by the environmental industry, as we had been putting hazardous, finite and reusable materials into landfill for too long. Can it be deemed a success so far? Well, if we look where we are now, we are achieving our target, as we are recycling the required 4kg of WEEE per capita.

However, if we delve deeper into the statistics, this is a small representation of the electronic waste we generate. For instance, the most recent statistics point to a 20 per cent recycling rate on general electronics and when it comes to household items, this drops closer to 14 per cent. It’s clear therefore, that we have a long way to go when it comes to achieving the inherent objectives of the directive.

Looking forward, 2016 is where the industry’s focus is now needed as this target is due to be announced shortly.

Earlier in June, MEPs voted for an 85 per cent recycling rate by weight of electronics coming on the market. If this is the figure set, we have quite a steep mountain to climb for the UK to get close to these targets in a little over five years.


There is much debate amongst WEEE recyclers and compliance schemes about how we can best achieve more understanding of directive.

One of the crucial issues is participation; we need to raise awareness amongst the public that throwing away electrical items with household waste isn’t acceptable. The fact we only recycle 14 per cent of household electronics three years on from the directive isn’t something we should be shouting about – it’s not a figure to be celebrated.

To really achieve the objectives of the directive – and an 85 per cent recycling target – everyone involved in the electrical goods supply chain must play their part. This means that manufacturers, retailers, consumers, businesses, IT firms, repair companies, local authorities and central government all need to make sure that the message to recycle gets through and is acted upon.

To achieve this, there needs to be a co-ordinated and national campaign that communicates to each party the directive, its objectives and each party’s responsibility. If people don’t know they need to recycle, they won’t think anything of putting it in the general waste.

It’s only through education and communication that we will see the significant level of uptake needed for us to make progress against the potential 2016 targets.

Furthermore, to encourage greater levels of public participation, we need to make it simple and easy to do.

We have to be realistic – people won’t make a dedicated trip to the household recycling centre for a mobile phone or kettle, instead we need to find ways of capturing these small WEEE items through existing mixed kerbside schemes, bring banks at supermarkets and on a wider note consider localised recycling facilities on new housing developments for instance.

Responsible handling and exporting

The other area that needs greater encouragement to ensure that waste is being handled correctly is user (not producer) responsibility. By this we mean that businesses need to have greater appreciation of the need to understand how their own waste is processed.

Illegal exporting of WEEE is a worldwide problem, and there have been a number of instances in the last 12 months, where television programmes have exposed poor exporting practices and shown young children from Africa and India handling hazardous waste materials from certain NHS trusts and multinational blue chips. To prevent such a PR disaster, businesses should be undertaking more thorough checks to ensure that their waste is being appropriately handled – that only working equipment is exported and the rest is recycled safely and the materials separated and used by approved reprocessors either in the UK or abroad.

For recyclers and exporters, we need tougher policing of the regulations to ensure that as a nation, we are meeting our own obligations that only fit-for-purpose WEEE is exported.

It’s wrong that we are expecting undeveloped nations to handle hazardous materials that we ourselves find difficult. Their processes and health and safety procedures are decades behind our own, and the result will be colossal environmental – and physical – damage to people and their countries. Checks and measures need to be consistent from the likes of the Environment Agency to ensure that all WEEE items have been thoroughly checked and tested properly. Indeed what would be most beneficial would be a quality protocol to ensure that each exported item has followed the same approval criteria, which is reflected in the exporting documentation.

There are many positives achievement to be recognised. The UK has embraced the opportunities the WEEE directive poses; we have plenty of capacity and a robust infrastructure in place through national compliance schemes to enable us to handle significantly larger amounts of household WEEE.

Furthermore, companies such as SWEEEP/Kuusakoski are making technological advancements to enable greater levels of materials to be recovered and returned to the manufacturing industries, which is helping to boost overall recycling rates.

While it’s clear that we have made a good start to WEEE recycling in the UK, there is much more we need to do to ensure we get to the very heart of the directive’s intentions. We are in a good place however, we have the infrastructure and recycling processes in place, we just now need to focus on communicating this and increasing participation rates. If we can do this, then we stand a real chance of meeting and surpassing the potential 85 per cent target for 2016.

To find out more about SWEEEP, visit www.sweeep.co.uk

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