WEEE: POPs mean changes for UK WEEE
John Redmayne, Managing Director of ERP, explains how changes to POPs regulations will impact UK waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)
A change to EU Regulation 2019/1021 on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) has shaken waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) re-processors in the UK with knock-on effects on compliance schemes and their producer members.
As their name suggests, POPs are chemicals that can persist and bioaccumulate in natural environments for a long period of time, posing a toxic risk not only to the environment but also to human health. The Stockholm Convention, first adopted in 2001, provides a legal framework for the elimination of the production, use and export of POPs on a global scale, and the EU Regulation 2019/1021 brings the EU rules into alignment with updates to the Convention. There have been a number of changes but of particular relevance are a reduction in the maximum concentration levels for POPs in waste and the addition of decaBDE (decabromodiphenyl ether) to the list of POPs.
Brominated flame-retardants – and in particular decaBDE – were widely used in plastics in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) until their usage was phased out in 2008. As a result, the Industry Council for Electrical Recycling (ICER) commissioned research to determine the concentration levels of POPs and various other hazardous substances in WEEE plastics. Through testing samples of plastics from different products across the WEEE stream, the study found that some equipment contained levels of POPs above the levels permitted and also identified other hazardous, flame- retardant chemicals.
Impact on the sector
Regulations (unlike directives) come into immediate effect. The combination of this new research and the changed regulations meant that, as of July this year, plastics from WEEE such as cathode ray tubes, flat panel displays and small mixed WEEE – which fall outside the allowable threshold of POPs – will now need to be recognised as hazardous waste and must therefore be processed to separate the plastics containing POPs. The regulation dictates that the resulting waste ‘must be destroyed or irreversibly transformed’ – as a result, Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities (AATFs) and their secondary processors will now be required to make costly changes to the way that they store, treat and process some WEEE plastics.
The fact that producers who are active in the EEE market during a given year must help meet the cost of recycling of that same year means many producers are confused as to why the regulation changes are causing issues for them when their products have not contained POPs for a decade or more – of course, waste managers know that EEE can remain in use (or storage) for many years after being sold.
There is also widespread concern that WEEE recycling rates may suffer as a result of the new regulations. Commercial Manager of AATF SWEEEP Kuusakoski Justin Greenaway believes that these regulatory changes may cause issues around compliance: “As more WEEE plastics will end up being recovered rather than recycled, the levels of recycling achieved in processing some WEEE streams will reduce – potentially to levels below those recyclers are required to achieve.”
Additional challenges are also present around the UK’s capacity to process these WEEE plastics as the requirement to irreversibly destroy POPs in waste treatment will result in the use of more incineration or co-firing in cement kilns – either in the UK or abroad.
Is relief in sight?
In the longer term, the current and planned investments in separation and treatment facilities for WEEE plastics, as well as the development of routes for destruction of the plastics containing POPs, should be a benefit for the UK. As well as achieving higher standards of environmental protection, the UK will be more in control of the waste it generates and better equipped to address future challenges.