What goes into two million tonnes of electrical waste?

What goes in to two million tonnes of electrical waste?Over two million tonnes of waste electrical goods have been collected and recycled by compliance scheme REPIC since new government regulations were introduced in 2007, the company announced last week, but what exactly goes into two million tonnes of electrical waste?

The UK took on European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations nine years ago, and since then producers of the equipment have had to sign up to producer compliance schemes like REPIC and directly fund the collection of the waste from their products.

REPIC is one of 37 approved WEEE PCSs, and the first to reach the two million tonnes milestone, which it estimates equates to around half of all the WEEE collected in the UK since 2007.

Two million tonnes is the equivalent to around 158,102 London buses, or 5,050 fully loaded Boeing 747s, so how much WEEE does it take to make up such a figure?

REPIC estimates that over the past nine years it has funded the collection and recycling of:

  • 450 million small appliances (toasters, kettles, vacuum cleaners, hairdryers etc.);
  • 16 million fridges and freezers;
  • 27 million other white goods (washing machines, dishwashers, dryers etc.);
  • 27 million TVs and monitors; and
  • A relatively small number of lamps and photovoltaic (PV) panels (too small to quantify).

Each year the UK collects around 500,000 tonnes of WEEE through the various PCSs, with each item placed in one of the six defined groups above.

Solar panels are set to emerge as a significant source of waste in the next few decades
Across the UK, around 3.5 million ‘cooling and freezing appliances’ are collected every year, alongside six million other large white goods, six million TVs and display equipment and over 10 million lamps.

Small mixed WEEE, those appliances that you have scattered throughout every room of your home – vacuums, drills, hairdryers, phones, kettles, electric toothbrushes and DVD players – are split into their own categories, but together around 100 million different items are collected and recycled every year.

The final category, PV or solar panels, currently makes up a very small proportion of electrical goods prepared for recycling, due to their long life expectancy (20-30 years). However, there are currently more than 750,000 solar PV installations in the UK, and the International Renewable Energy Agency says that by 2050 more than a million tonnes of PV panel waste could be generated every year.

Unclaimed value lying unused in British homes

From these numbers it seems that WEEE recycling is making the most of the majority of our broken, old or unwanted products, but a recent study by REPIC revealed that each home storing at least three redundant electrical items worth £591 hiding in cupboards and under stairs.

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There's great value in old phones left in drawers throughout the UK
Last year, the environmental think tank Green Alliance estimated that there are up to 125 million smartphones lying unused in UK homes alone, despite the value of their components. The parts of a discarded two-year-old iPhone, it claimed, could be worth up to £170 – nearly one third of the original sales value of the device.

WEEE recycling benefitting environment, economy and employment

Dr Philip Morton, CEO of REPIC, says that the success of the WEEE recycling system has been down to collaboration across the supply chain, and has brought multiple benefits: “The proper recycling and recovery of end of life electricals has made an enormous contribution to the environment, the economy and employment.

“The more WEEE that we can capture in the system the better. We have been able to achieve this milestone because of the fantastic commitment from our producer members, our local authority, waste company, retailer and treatment partners and of course our dedicated REPIC team.

“The media too has played a strong role, positively promoting the WEEE system and encouraging active participation by consumers. I look forward to seeing REPIC reach even higher goals in the future.”

How has the nature of electronic waste changed since 2007?

Dr Philip Morton, REPIC CEO

The WEEE market is constantly evolving and since the regulations first took operational effect there have been many changes, but two have been major shifts and caused a number of consequences as a result (even ignoring the rise of the smart phones, tablets etc.)

Dr Philip Morton
Firstly there is a an ever increasing trend to include more and more plastic in new products (EEE) placed on to the market for structural, aesthetic, cost and weight reasons. As these items reach end of life and become WEEE this has an impact on the WEEE treatment and recycling sector. Metal (ferrous, non-ferrous, copper etc.) has an inherent value and the technology to separate these materials is well established and relatively straightforward. This provides an income stream for the treatment plants, which offsets the cost of recycling.

Admittedly at the moment global secondary metal prices are low but the trend is cyclical and prices will at some point return to better levels. Steel is always steel and fairly easily incorporated back into the smelting process.

Plastic is a different story, there may be several different types and different colours in a single product, with fillers, flame retardants and other additives within the polymers. Plastic types are more difficult to separate and in most cases the plastics derived from WEEE are sold into the secondary market as ‘mixed’ plastic, losing both value and the inherent energy used to initially make the products. Not the best use if we are truly seeking a circular economy. The good news though is that a number of EEE producers are incorporating recycled WEEE plastic back into new EEE and this trend is set to continue. 

The other change worthy of note is the massive structural change we saw when TV transmission moved from analogue to digital coupled with the near coincidental technological move from cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs to 'flat panel'.

As the analogue signal was progressively and regionally switched over consumers were faced with a choice, either buy a set top box to convert an existing TV or buy a new flat panel digital TV. A CRT TV is constructed in an entirely different way to a flat panel, it operates differently and it needs different technology to recycle end of life products. CRTs have leaded glass, flat panels don’t, and plasma soon made way for LCD (liquid crystal displays). Today we have plasma, LCD, LED, OLED and so on.

This presented a challenge to the treatment sector rather like the one faced by the petroleum industry when leaded petrol was replaced by unleaded. Do you invest in technology (in this case to treat CRT TVs that are no longer made) and if so on what scale to deal with the legacy issue of CRT TV’s in consumers homes? How many CRT’s are out there and how long will it take for them to be fully replaced? How quickly will the volumes tail off? As ever the WEEE treatment sector responded to the challenge and continually adapts to deal with all the changes thrown at them.

For the future the next challenge are the so-called VIP’s (Vacuum Insulation Panels) in fridges and freezers. Producers are being driven by stricter and stricter needs for energy consumption reduction in their products and VIP’s provide excellent insulation. They are however full of fine silica (sand) and this will undoubtedly become another challenge which I am sure the WEEE treatment sector will innovatively deal with. The WEEE market is a wonderful sector rich with character and characters and a vital and vibrant contributor to the environment, our economy and employment. I love it…

More information can be found at REPIC’s website.