The Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive may be delayed, but everybody is talking about it. One company in particular is waiting in the wings to take advantage of the recovery and recycling opportunities it will offer.

Last month Wincanton officially opened its new WEEE recycling plant in Billingham, Teeside. The £4.5 million plant – which is capable of processing up to 75,000 tonnes of WEEE a year – employs state-of-the-art technology and claims to be the first of its kind in the UK, able to process all types of WEEE. According to chief executive Graeme McFaull, the plant is “a real milestone in Wincanton’s growth”. Despite being in operation for 76 years, recycling is a recent addition to Wincanton’s portfolio as its core business is in logistics.

The pan-European supply chain provider employs 28,000 people across 15 countries where it operates upwards of 4,000 vehicles from over 380 locations, and has a turnover of £1.8 billion. Its blue-chip customer portfolio includes British Airways, Tesco, Esso, Nestle and Comet to name but a few.

Wincanton has built its reputation on delivering supply chain solutions, but has since branched out. Three years ago it brought the logistics operations of the P&O Group and inherited a fridge recycling plant in Billingham. Since then, Wincanton has processed over 600,000 fridges on-site for retailers and local authorities, and was instrumental in helping to clear the infamous fridge mountain in Manchester.

Recycling is key growth area

“Recycling wasn’t part of our original strategy, but it became obvious to us that this was a great business opportunity,” recalls McFaull. “This was an area that was growing in demand and it was a solution to our customers’ problems.”

With its expertise in fridge recycling and established supply chain links, WEEE is 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,” says McFaull.

In building the WEEE plant, Wincanton worked closely with German manufacturer MeWa who specialise in recycling machinery. The plant employs ‘QZ’ technology – this cracks open the outer casing of electrical equipment, releasing the inner components without breaking them.

Before electrical items are processed on the plant, some manual re-treatment may be required such as cathode ray tube removal from TV and computer monitors. The electrical items are then conveyed into the QZ vessel. Inside the QZ vessel are a series of chains that spin round – this creates a vortex so that as materials inside the vessel hit each other, they 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.

Following this, the material undergoes mechanical separation. Initially the output is separated into a fine stream and a coarse stream, the latter undergoes treatment through a magnet to separate ferrous from non-ferrous fractions.

The resulting three streams – fine, coarse ferrous and coarse non-ferrous – are then conveyed to a picking station where operatives manually remove any items required under the WEEE directive such as batteries and printed circuit boards. From the station the remainder of the material – mainly iron, non-ferrous metals and plastics – go through a process of granulation where they are broken up into a smaller particle size. The granulated output is then separated again into three streams – ferrous, non-ferrous and plastics – and these can be moved on for recycling and put back into raw materials.

Performance exceeds requirements

According to Simon Hill, commercial manager at Wincanton, the performance of the plant depends on the component mix and type of material going through it, but he says the plant can far exceed WEEE requirements: “Typically 95% of the contents can be recycled.”

Although 10 tonnes of WEEE an hour can be processed on the plant, 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.”

He adds that in the interim period, the company will be focusing on business-to-business WEEE such as electrical equipment in the IT and telecommunications sectors.

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