Does WEEE Handling Need To Go Back To Basics?

 As WEEE continues to be one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, the industry cannot become despondent, argues UNTHA UK’s managing director Chris Oldfield. In fact, it could even be argued that WEEE handling needs to go back to basics in order to thrive… 

Don’t get me wrong – we were among loudest to voice our disappointment when Defra announced that 622,033 tonnes is the overall WEEE collection target for 2017, significantly less than the EU’s goal of 776,000 tonnes. We even polled visitors to our website to see if they shared our feelings of deflation! Incidentally 58% agreed that the targets are too low and therefore risk stalling progress.

Among our biggest worry was the fact that, in the absence of less impetus to act, a more passive mindset will endure in a sector that cannot afford to lose vigour. WEEE remains one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world, with the EU alone producing 10.3 million tonnes of such arisings per year.

Now is not the time to stop driving for change.

However, we must all remember one very basic fact – targets alone, do not achieve headway. Of course, they do provide a reason to drive forwards. But it is the combined effort of every organisation, individual and member of the public, which truly contributes to change.

When it is not commercially viable to manually strip back the WEEE or gain access to all the component parts, a shredding operation can be designed to release these valuable recyclates.

It could therefore be argued that there must be less worry about the numbers, and more focus on the action.

In that case, it comes down to mindset and methodologies. So, what is the best way to process redundant WEEE, when it has been recovered?

Firstly, it is crucial to ensure the compliant handling of this inherently hazardous material stream, by a specialist operator. But what about the specific techniques to facilitate maximum recyclate recovery rates?

In many cases, seemingly outdated WEEE can be refurbished for re-use, providing it is stored correctly prior to being handled – being left outdoors in a cage and exposed to the elements isn’t going to do the equipment much good.  The equipment may be unwanted but still in perfect working order or suitable for resale following a safety inspection and repair. Beyond that, a material liberation strategy should be prioritised as the next-best option, so that valuable commodities such as gold, copper and palladium can be extracted, segregated and re-inserted into the supply chain.

Where possible, the manual breakdown of equipment, by trained professionals, should be carried out initially. Whilst this labour-intensive process naturally takes time, the semi-precious nature of the materials inside means this is usually a worthwhile exercise.

When it is not commercially viable to manually strip back the WEEE or gain access to all the component parts, a shredding operation can be designed to release these valuable recyclates. Some WEEE operators would opt for a hammer-mill machine, which works by smashing aggregate material into smaller pieces with repeated impact blows. However, such equipment is typically high speed, which can create a significant amount of (expensive!) dust. It also cannot usually achieve the particle refinement required for downstream separation technologies to effectively do their job.

A four shaft machine with screen, on the other hand, will ensure the production of a homogenous fraction. Ideally, the technology should be high torque and slow speed too, for low wear, increased uptime and added efficiency. The integration of an overband magnet will help extract ferrous metals, an eddy current separator (ECS) can remove separate out any non-ferrous metals, and an optical sorter can finally clean anything that the ECS hasn’t already refined.

The more that such valuable ‘waste’ materials can be salvaged and re-inserted into new manufacturing processes, the greater our resource security as a nation. Plus, the revenue yield from each WEEE recovery system will soon pay for the initial capital outlay. After that, everything is largely profit.

Surely these are the facts and figures we should be concentrating on, whatever our thoughts when the new targets were first announced.

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