The future is bright for plastics in WEEE

As the latest hi-tech gadgets we buy become smarter and lighter, plastics are starting to replace metals in their manufacture. This marks a shift in priorities for the recovery merchants, as Maxine Perella finds out

In a consumerist world where nothing stays static, information technology likes to power along in the fast lane. As it grows more sophisticated, the products that bring us the latest in multi-media and communications are also becoming lighter. And this is having a knock-on effect when it comes to their disposal.

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is the UK’s fastest growing waste stream. But where the recovery of precious metals from WEEE was the main value stream for recyclers and reprocessors a few years ago, another material is gaining in worth – plastics.

According to Sims Recycling Solutions, which claims to have a 30% market share in the UK’s WEEE recycling arena, as manufacturers look to lightweight their items, more of the content being recovered in terms of volume is mixed plastics. The company quickly realised that if it wanted to capitalise upon this trend, it had to change its business model.

“Over the past 18 – 24 months, we saw that the metal content in WEEE material was decreasing while the plastics content was increasing,” explains Daniel Krug, Sims’ commercial manager. “We don’t regard plastics as a waste, it is a product … so as the plastics content is rising, we are now looking to refine this stream further by separating it out into single polymers where possible.”

To do this, Sims has adopted what it calls a ‘site-specific specialisation’ approach. The company has 10 WEEE recycling plants across the UK, and 39 metals recycling facilities. It plans to set up a competence centre for plastics at its Billingham site in Teeside, and a similar centre for metals at its main base in Newport, South Wales.

By using individual sites to specialise on particular processes, Krug believes this will not only improve operational efficiency, but deepen the company’s understanding of the markets involved.

Sims’ existing plastics recovery plant, which has been running in Newport for the past 18 months, will be decommissioned shortly and transferred to the Billingham site. This will free up the Newport operation to focus primarily on metals recovery while the Billingham site homes in on plastics.

All plastics output from Sims’ WEEE operations – once it has gone through the primary shredding stage at various sites – will travel to Billingham where it will be refined further into single polymer fractions. Three quality grades will be produced – post-industrial, compounding, and regrind.

Sims sees the post-industrial market of growing importance – traditionally WEEE recyclers have concentrated on post-consumer goods. It has entered into strategic partnerships with selected firms out in Germany to exploit these opportunities for post-industrial plastics.

“We will be able to work with automotive and electronic manufacturers to process the off-cuts of their products, such as dashboards, to recover the plastics,” explains Paul Wake, Sims’ regional manager, adding that it will also help the company achieve greater volumes.

Wake also maintains that one of the key drivers of the polymers market is to replace metals and he believes higher grade polymers will start making their way into the manufacturing cycle to replace ferrous and non-ferrous material.

Currently the company exports the majority of its plastics to Germany, but says it is working with a select number of companies to improve the quality further for end markets in the UK.

“There is a vast array of plastics out there and we’ve got the ability to recover them,” he concludes.

Maxine Perella is editor of edieWaste

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