On Boro time

Despite the delay of the Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, a new plant in Middlesbrough is ready to meet its requirements. Tom Idle paid a visit

The constant wrangling over the anticipated Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive is causing much frustration. Manufacturers are unsure of how much groundwork they must do before its implementation. Retailers, similarly, are unclear of their commitments. And organisations such as local authorities do not know whether they are coming or going.

The Government claims that the fourth delay in bringing the legislation into force has been welcomed by both public- and private-sector organisations. It’s thought the delay will give the Government time to ensure the costs to business and local government are minimised once the directive has been fully implemented. Originally due to come to the force in June last year, the latest delay was announced at Christmas, and another review is expected in the next couple of months.

The arguments continue over the appropriate time to enforce this new piece of legislation (which will ensure manufacturers and importers take responsibility for recycling their products when they become waste). However, logistics firm Wincanton has made progress in preparing for it eventually getting under way.

I travelled to Billingham, a town just outside Middlesbrough, where the company unveiled its new investment

– a £4.5 million WEEE recycling plant. “This is a significant investment in an innovative capability that, for the first time, will facilitate the full spectrum of recycling and reprocessing services in the UK,” says Chief Executive Graeme McFaull. It certainly is an impressive set-up.

As one of the country’s leading logistics businesses, Wincanton is ideally positioned to take a lead in dealing with the WEEE conundrum. The reverse logistics services offered to retailers, manufacturers, businesses and local councils now includes an all-encompassing solution for all aspects of the WEEE Directive, including refurbishment of old products, sorting materials into categories for easy recycling and the complete management of waste.

The machine itself, can process up to 75,000 tonnes a year; that’s the equivalent of 826,500 washing machines, 67 million kettles or 536 million mobile phones. Wincanton claims it’s the first machine of its kind in the UK. No wonder they’re calling it a “real milestone in Wincanton’s growth”.

The state-of-the-art technology takes electronic and electrical items back to the basic material that can be recycled – in line with the requirements of the WEEE legislation. The highly sophisticated machine, developed and manufactured by German company MeWa, is able to process a wide range of electrical items.

The plant employs QZ technology – this cracks open the outer casing of electrical equipment, releasing the inner components without breaking them. These components are then recycled. The remaining parts, such as the metals and plastics used in the manufacturing process, are granulated and separated to their constituent parts for recycling. Before electrical items are processed in the plant, some manual re-treatment may be required, such as cathode ray tube removal from TV and computer monitors. These are then conveyed into the QZ vessel, where a series of chains spin around creating a vortex. The materials then hit each other and break up. The speed and residence time of the chains can be adjusted; by employing a slow speed and short residence time, components can be discharged without damage. According to Commercial Manager Simon Hill, the performance of the plant depends on the component mix and type of material going through it, but he believes the plant can far exceed WEEE requirements. “Typically 95% of the contents can be recycled,” he says.

Although 10 tonnes of product can be processed in an hour, capacity may not be maximised for some time until the directive is fully implemented. McFaull says the delay is “frustrating” but believes it is a “short-term blip” and is confident the company will see a return on its investment relatively quickly. “The capacity we’ve created will not be fully utilised until the directive is implemented, but that’s when the floodgate will open and we will really be able to operate efficiently.”

When the new legislation comes in, retailers and manufacturers will have to take back and recycle end-of-life electrical goods using best available treatment, recovery and recycling techniques. What Wincanton has developed (and it is hoped others will follow suit) is a one-stop-shop solution to meet WEEE collection needs.

“Recycling wasn’t part of our original strategy, but it became obvious this was a great business opportunity,” adds McFaull. And with its expertise in fridge recycling and established supply chain links, it was a natural progression for Wincanton. “We took the decision in late 2004 to make a significant capital investment in technology to provide a WEEE-based solution.”

What has been created in Billingham is a fine example of new technology being adopted to deal with the long-term impact of WEEE legislation. It may be delayed but it isn’t going to go away.

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