Phil Gibbs, joint director of Pure Planet Recycling, looks back over the last 10 years of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling and finds the key to success is the ability to adapt to an ever-shifting landscape.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 10 years of WEEE recycling, it’s this: evolution is everything. The WEEE recycling landscape, like any other, is constantly changing. And the only way to navigate those changes is to be able to adapt – just like a chameleon changes the colour of its skin to reflect its current environment.
Take the 2008 recession, for example. Pure Plant Recycling was just a year old when it hit, and the operating environment changed dramatically. Consumer spending slowed, and customers were understandably reluctant to make new purchases, instead holding on to their equipment for longer.
It’s a shift that could have stopped us and many others in our tracks, had we not been in willing to adapt. As a new, relatively small company, we were able to think on our feet and implement changes quickly. Our core mission and values remained the same (we were still a chameleon, after all!) but we had to find ways to fit in with the landscape around us. It meant we could ride out the season until the market had stabilised. To quote the author H. G. Wells, it was definitely a case of adapt or perish.
Education – Increasing Awareness & Avoiding Complacency
Of course, there have been plenty more changes over the last decade. Back in 2007, the general public had never heard of WEEE recycling. The WEEE Regulations 2006 were still relatively new, and most people simply threw their old electronics in the bin and didn’t give them a second thought.
Over the next few years, education on the disposal of electrical waste gradually increased, and public knowledge is now much better. It has certainly benefitted the industry as a whole, and improved the operating environment. But that’s not to say the challenge is over, and it’s important for us not to rest on our laurels.
On the one hand, we need to continue to educate on the reuse, recovery and recycling of electrical waste prior to its disposal. But it will be equally important to implement this knowledge further back in the chain – at the point when products are manufactured.
Including more recycled materials in the development of new products will lead to more stable pricing for materials with a steady demand. And if we can further increase awareness on the demand for these materials, both consumers and business markets will be encouraged to recycle more effectively.
ISO14001: Helping To Weed Out The Good Suppliers From The Bad
There have also been changes in regulations along the way that have had a positive impact on the industry. We welcomed the introduction of ISO14001 with open arms, because it enables customers to weed out the good suppliers from the bad. Now, there’s an expectation that suppliers must have a waste management permit, correct procedures in place and all the necessary paperwork.
We also closely monitored the Environment Agency’s crackdown on illegal waste operators, including overseas shipments of electrical waste. Between 2015 and 2016, a national EA taskforce shut down almost 1,000 illegal waste sites and prosecuted more than 50 waste firms. Although not solely linked to electrical waste – illegal exports of WEEE and household waste actually fell by 17% between 2014 and 2016 – it revealed a large-scale problem within the waste and recycling industry as a whole. Not only that, but it further cemented the importance of processing our waste here in the UK.
Adapting Business Models To Suit Customers’ Changing Needs
From a service point of view, business models are constantly evolving. One example is free WEEE collections: where companies like ours once offered this, we’re seeing far fewer companies who do. This relied on the commodities and materials market being strong enough to offer the rebate. And as with anything of this nature, this has gone up and down in line with the global market.
As well as this, our customers’ needs have changed over the last decade, and like any business we’ve had to re-think the way we operate in line with this. As more businesses and organisations required a national service – many of them operating from multiple sites across the UK – we widened our service regions. In 2013, we expanded to 19 counties in the south east. And in 2017 we announced a fully national service.
Of course, this in itself has instigated more changes, including the introduction of an environmentally friendly transport route planner to reduce the Co2 count. And we’ll continue to modify the way we work in order to retain our core values and do everything we can to recycle electrical waste responsibly.
There’s no doubt that further changes await the wider industry in the future. But our hope is that by continuing to adapt, we’ll be able to look back on another decade of responsible WEEE recycling in 2027.