Specialist WEEE recycler strikes gold with scrap metal
U Can Recycling extracts value from unwanted WEEE. Nick Warburton reports on a local regeneration success story
Rob Seal, founder of Leeds-based social enterprise U Can Recycling, is not averse to getting his hands dirty.
As the managing director of a waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling business, Seal appreciates the arduous work that is involved in stripping down unwanted IT equipment for its valuable parts. He's been there himself.
Four years ago, shortly after being made redundant, he was living in a grim high-rise in northern Germany, breaking down TVs for a German recycling company in an effort to learn more about WEEE.
He'd forked out £1,000 to pay for the work experience but it wasn't money wasted. While there, he first learnt the true value of scrap metal.
"It's all about economies of scale and sorting because until it's sorted it is waste," he says. "As soon as it's sorted, it becomes a material."
Soon after, Seal developed working arrangements with Asian WEEE recyclers which opened his eyes to the commercial opportunities in recycling unwanted WEEE. Before setting up on his own, Seal's former business partner imparted some valuable advice.
"You need to work in partnership with people because when you're small and you're working in waste you're up against the big boys," he observes.
"It's about knowing who is a specialist and that's where the partnerships come in. That enables you to get hold of the material so that you can process and recycle it."
Seal first came up with the business case for U Can Recycling when he was hot-desking from a nearby business incubation centre.
Fast forward three years and the specialist WEEE recycler operates from a small office space in Harehills, a regeneration area close to central Leeds, where it also collects aluminium cans and scrap metal.
"My aim was to take the hassle out of recycling and help companies adhere to WEEE regulations by disposing of their computer waste responsibly and ensuring landfill diversion," he explains.
"At the same time I wanted to work with schools and social groups to encourage and subsidise local recycling schemes from a grass roots level."
CO2 Sense, a regional enterprise partnership, provided a grant to help Seal start up and from the funding he purchased a baler, compressor, hard drive shredding machine and data degausser. This secure data destruction equipment has enabled him to expand his operations.
"Businesses, colleges, banks, hospitals and local authorities need to carefully manage sensitive data, not only while it is in their possession but when it comes to equipment disposal too," he explains.
"The confidential data destruction equipment allows us to process IT waste to Ministry of Defence level security."
Importantly, Seal secured a designated collection facility (DCF) licence from the Environment Agency, which means that it is the only privately-run DCF in Leeds where members of the public can drop off any unwanted items - everything from old PCs to laptops and TVs to vacuum cleaners.
"A lot of what we do is testing to try and get equipment working," he says. "If the whole thing won't work, we try and salvage the things that will - the component parts."
Drawing on his marketing experience, Seal launched his own website to promote the service and an eBay shop to sell working models as well as individual parts to a global market.
"You can put a certain processer on eBay and it can be snapped up in seconds by someone in Italy," he maintains.
While Seal laughs at the notion that he's become a global trader, that's not far from the truth. Every day, he scans metal prices on the stock exchange.
Buried among the perceived junk are valuable metals like platinum, palladium, silver and gold. Seal estimates that a tonne of mother boards in a PC might contain about 150 grams of gold, which could fetch about £4,000.
"You can sell components containing precious metals to a middle man. You won't get quite as good a price as sending the material to a refinery but you're guaranteed the money and you'll get paid straight away," he explains.
"Or you can send it to a refinery but they take four months to pay and the price may have plummeted in that time. However, you'll get a bigger slice of the pie."
Seal generally deals with large specialist metal companies, large computer recyclers or waste companies and tries to broker deals on scrap materials that leave him with a profit. To widen the net further, he's launched a free IT waste collection service for businesses across the UK.
"Haulage is quite cost effective really and I can easily send the wagon up to Scotland or down to Letchworth" he says quoting a few recent deliveries. "As long as the stuff on the van is worth more than that, it's worth doing."
Looking ahead, Seal would like to start working with compliance schemes, as this would enable U Can Recycling to tap into larger volumes of corporate waste.
It's been challenging for such a small enterprise to break into local authorities but he hopes that U Can Reycling's policy of creating jobs for the local long-term unemployed - Seal hopes to double the 11-man workforce by the end of the year - will be supported by Leeds City Council.
"We're happy to work with the council on apprenticeship programmes," he confides.
"There's almost a direct correlation between our recovery volume and the number of jobs we can create. I hope the council will be interested in the idea of helping a local company create jobs for local people."
Nick Warburton is editor of LAWR