Address WEEE recycling infrastructure before further investment, says study

New research commissioned by Material Focus has called for the systemic issues that are causing waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling infrastructure in the UK to run significantly below capacity to be addressed before any future investment fund is established.

Conducted by sustainability consultancy Anthesis, the research has found that the UK’s waste electricals recycling system is not capturing enough waste electricals through permitted sites, with around 300k tonnes of WEEE lost each year to household and commercial mixed or residual waste.

This loss has been amplified by the decrease of waste processing sites, with the number of large waste processing sites (AATFs) falling from 97 to 84 between 2013 and 2019. The number of smaller sites also fell from 182 to 103 in the same period.

As a result of these findings, the research concludes it is currently premature to recommend the establishment of an infrastructure investment to build new WEEE recycling capacity and that the current focus should be on making the sector more investible.

To achieve this, the research findings suggest introducing a mandatory waste electrical treatment standard for all sites handling WEEE, designed to deliver a level playing field across the sector, as well as increasing the capacity and capability of material recovery inside the UK, to increase the value of materials recovered.

Executive Director of Material Focus Scott Butler commented: “This research has provided some valuable insights into how the waste electricals infrastructure can be supported and developed to ensure more waste electricals are captured and recycled in the future.”

Part of the research involved interviewing key industry stakeholders, who advised that the commercial case for increasing WEEE recycling is currently less viable as market trading prices for recycled material are not comparable to the equivalent market prices for virgin material.

Some stakeholders suggested that the average market price for virgin materials can be 4 to 5 times higher than those for the recycled equivalent, as WEEE is often considered lower quality.

To combat this, the research suggests focusing on behaviour change, awareness and education to increase WEEE recycling on a commercial basis.

Mark Sayers, Senior Consultant, Anthesis said “We have seen and heard from WEEE stakeholders across the supply chain about the decline in electricals recycled and how the commercial viability of collection and recycling has become less attractive. 

“Looking forward, our research favours changes to the system that will in-turn encourage investment.

“Adopting common recycling standards supported by increases in the correct collection and treatment of WEEE and changes to the WEEE system would help stabilise the WEEE system and result in a more favourable investment outcome.”