Huge cost increases in WEEE recycling due to regs shake-up

According to a recent article published on MRW, a shake-up of WEEE regulations is happening behind the scenes that will result in many more items being categorised as hazardous and a huge rise in costs in dealing with the waste stream, the Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities (AATF) forum has warned.

Research by the Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER) has confirmed that levels of persistent organic pollutant (POP) flame retardants in certain WEEE plastics are higher than regulations allow.

With this new information the Environment Agency has been able to clarify its European waste codes (EWC) and the disposal routes that must be applied. Many items that have been collected and recycled as non-hazardous must now be subject to hazardous waste rules, effective immediately.

Plastics in small mixed WEEE, cathode ray tube TVs and monitors and flat-screen TVs and monitors can no longer be recycled without separation treatment and POP-containing plastic must be incinerated.

To add to the confusion, new European regulations come into force on 16 July with even lower POPs threshold. The current 2,000mg/kg waste limit for POP-PBDEs (tetra-, penta-, hexa-, heptaBDE) is being halved to 1,000mg/kg, and in two years’ time this will be cut further to 500mg/kg.

AATF chair Phil Conran said: “This is going to lead to significant cost increases to producers. But perhaps the biggest issue at the moment is that the agency isn’t giving out any guidance. A lot of collectors won’t know, a lot of people receiving stuff under exemptions won’t know the EWC codes have changed. People taking WEEE under T11 exemptions won’t know.”

Concern has been raised about POPs as they don’t biodegrade easily and bioaccumulate in the environment. There have been long and heated discussions in the EU about the issue, with some NGOs pushing for a POPs threshold as low as 10mg/kg.

Conran said the forum welcomed the changes and that the law must be followed but was concerned – as well as the lack of guidance – the EA may be being over-zealous in its interpretation of the law, and that there may also be some unwanted consequences.

For instance, it looks like those refurbishing computers and screens under the T11 exemptions for re-use may now be unable to do so under the law unless they can prove that the plastics in them contain the lower level of POPs, which they will struggle to do for older equipment. Many of these items are also exported to be used in developing counties, which they may now not be able to do if they are classed as hazardous waste.

The only way to know the levels of POPs would be to dismantle the parts and send them for specialist testing. Half the plastic would probably contain POPs above the threshold anyway, according to the ICER findings and the new lower threshold, and would need to go to incineration.

Conran said: “We are waiting for the agency’s position on re-use. At the moment people taking laptops and screens to refurbish may not be able to put them back onto the market. This has circular economy consequences.

“Brominated flame retardants have been phased out. However, obviously EEE has a long life and therefore we are still collecting EEE that was put on the market before then. Gradually in time it will become less and less of an issue.”

The AATF is also concerned about the impact this “overnight” change will have on environmental permits, as firms may now find themselves storing hazardous waste without a permit. The changes may also result in a backlog, leading to stockpiling, which again could force companies into a situation where they are in breach of their permits.

There is a lack of treatment facilities able to dismantle WEEE, and also a lack of high temperature incineration capacity. This will mean waste will have to be exported under notification, which is a three-month process, which will cause delays and add to costs.

The changes may also impact on recycling rates with the “potential that some target rates may now not be achievable”, the AATF warned.

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