Make waste pay

Britain's rubbish mountain threatens to overwhelm us. Will new legislation to make the producers responsible turn the tide? Andrew Saunders investigates.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Things are changing in our dustbins. Forty years ago, we were simple folk and so was our trash. Back then, the average household's rubbish largely comprised no-nonsense, biodegradable debris such as wood and paper, vegetable peelings and used tea-leaves. Even food tins and drinks cans were made of steel that would rust away eventually when dumped in a hole in the ground (rather grandly called 'landfill' by the waste industry). And we didn't need a bottle bank when we got sixpence back on our empties at the corner shop.

We 21st-century consumers, however, are far more sophisticated. And so, unfortunately, is what we throw away. The sheer variety of goods we can choose to spend our money on these days is unrivalled, and entirely new ranges of expression for our insatiable desire to acquire come along all the time.

Nowhere has the explosion in customer choice been more dramatic than in the area of electrical and electronic equipment. How did we ever manage without our mobile phones, personal digital assistants, ultrasonic electric toothbrushes, home PCs, espresso coffee machines, DVD players, i-Pods, digital cameras, flat-screen TVs and laptops.

A mere 20 years ago most of these devices had yet to be invented or were the possessions of the privileged few. Now they are regarded as household essentials, and we have all bought in to the need to own them and - in the case of mobiles and computer equipment, at least - to the impulse to upgrade them every year or two. And, more often than not, we just throw the old machines away.

This means, of course, that modern domestic bins are brimming with entirely non-biodegradable synthetic materials (including dozens of different types of plastics) in the form of electronic and computer equipment, as well as toxic, heavy metal-laden items such as batteries and fluorescent tubes (yes, those energy-efficient 'green' light bulbs may last longer, but they are pretty nasty customers when the time comes to get rid of them). About a million tonnes a year of it, in fact, according to industry estimates (see table).

But the way we deal with most of this waste hasn't changed nearly so quickly - the likely end-point of whatever you put in your dustbin is still a landfill site, just as it always has been.

Enter the WEEE Directive (a not entirely inappropriate lavatorial acronym standing for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment). This hugely delayed and heavily discussed piece of European legislation has been kicking around various government departments - including the DTI and the Environment Agency - since the early 1990s. Due to come into operation in August, the directive has just been delayed once again and is now scheduled for January 2006. Its aim is to increase drastically the re-use and recycling of all kinds of old electrical and electronic equipment by making the manufacturers, retailers and importers financially liable for the eventual disposal of their goods - the so-called 'producer responsibility' principle.

'WEEE is intended to reduce waste and reduce landfill, to encourage re-use and to ensure that discarded products are properly treated,' says Joy Boyce, head of corporate environmental affairs for one of those suppliers, IT firm Fujitsu Services. And it's supposed to achieve that by making it economically worthwhile to recycle all those smaller electrical and electronic items, such as fan heaters and stereos, that currently cost more to process than the materials recoverable from them are worth.

'It all comes down to the economics in the end,' says Boyce. And there's the rub - in finding someone to foot the bill for all this additional recycling, she suggests, the legislators are following a time-honoured but un-sophisticated precedent. 'They're going for the people with the deepest pockets - the producers.'

The bill could be considerable - some estimates put the cost of dealing with WEEE as high as £500 million - and many producers have grave misgivings about exactly how the Directive is going to be made to work in the time available. 'It's very late, the bureaucracy associated with it is phenomenal and there are still lots of details that haven't been sorted out,' says Boyce.

And the devil, as so often, is in those details. Translating the apparently straightforward concept of producer responsibility into a practical and effective national system for collecting WEEE, ensuring that it's all processed properly and then divvying up the cost according to which producers sell most of the stuff in the first place is proving to be a Sisyphean task. Most of the likely options rely on making producers of electrical and electronic equipment register with a government agency - and not just the big boys; the directive will apply to all production levels.

Current favourite for undertaking this considerable labour is the Environment Agency. It will collect data on each producer's market share and allocate responsibility for recycling the equivalent proportion of the WEEE that is collected. Collection will probably be arranged via existing Civic Amenity sites (local tips, to you and me) for domestic waste and via direct collections from businesses. 'Under the directive, all businesses are obliged to separate out their WEEE for collection,' says Boyce.

One of the biggest fears among producers arising from this approach is that they will be forced to foot the bill for recycling equipment made by other companies, not just their own. In the short term, this is probably inevitable as a lot of waste out there has been made by now-defunct companies, but in the long term, says Boyce, 'we want individual producer responsibility to be the norm, so that we only get back our own products.'

If they don't get their way, not only will some producers end up effectively subsidising their competitors, but WEEE's much-trumpeted capacity to promote 'green' product design and manufacture will be hamstrung. If all waste is treated en masse, any advantage to an individual manufacturer from making products that are cheaper to dismantle than their rivals' is simply averaged out in the overall processing cost.

'Individual producer responsibility is the only way for us to get return on our investment in better product design,' says Boyce.

If the producers are anxious, so are the recyclers and waste collectors - though for different reasons. These guys want to make sure they get as much of the action as possible. As well as that one million tonnes of WEEE from British households, there's the waste from business-to-business activity and from the rest of the EU, each member nation of which will have its own WEEE implementations. Admittedly, some of what will be classified as WEEE (see table) is already recycled under existing rules, but however you slice that million-tonne estimate, it means more business for someone.

'We take WEEE very seriously indeed,' says Greg Hewlett, head of government and environmental affairs at Sims Recycling Solutions. 'We'd like to think that we will make a lot of money from it.' Founded in Australia but now operating all over the world, Sims is a business that knows more about making money from stuff that no-one wants any more than most. Its giant fridge recycling plant at Newport, south Wales, is the biggest in Europe and can reduce 400 tonnes of old Hotpoints, Smegs and Mieles into an eminently saleable fine-steel dice every hour of the day.

And yet until a few years ago, those fridges - like WEEE's old stereos, fan heaters and food mixers - were not worth recycling. Remember the fridge mountain? It was an earlier round of 'producer responsibility' regulations that changed those economics, creating a highly lucrative market for Sims and other companies in the process.

The biggest signal that Sims hopes to repeat this success was its takeover in November 2004 of Dutch business Mirec, Europe's largest electronics recycling outfit. 'The non-white goods part of the WEEE stream will go into new recycling processes like those being developed by Mirec,' says Hewlett. 'It is already working under producer responsibility regulations, dismantling electronic goods that have a negative value. That is to say, there are recoverable parts and raw materials in them, but the resale value doesn't cover the cost of getting them out.'

But this end of the cycle has problems too. One of the issues that recyclers face is the uncertainty over exactly how much of the various types of WEEE there will be for them to process, and thus how much money to invest in new sites and equipment. The directive states that all separately collected material must be treated, but domestic waste collection will rely entirely on the voluntary actions of householders, most of whom are blissfully ignorant of the Directive and what it means to them.

The reality will probably be that items that fit in the rubbish bin will still get thrown there, whether they could be collected as WEEE or not.

'The thing about fridges is that they don't fit in the bin; they have to be disposed of separately,' says Hewlett. 'We're anticipating that WEEE will produce plenty of TVs, but not many electric toothbrushes.'

Happily, another of Mirec's specialist processes produces reusable, guaranteed quality glass powder from cathode ray tubes (television screens and computer monitors).

Another concern is the fact that each country will have different implementations of WEEE, which could lead to competitiveness problems for operators based in countries with particularly stringent regulations. 'WEEE equipment can go anywhere in Europe for processing, or even anywhere in the world, provided you can demonstrate that it has been treated in accordance with the regulations. But how do you do that? It is a cause for concern.'

The final factor that really brings recyclers out in a cold sweat is the prospect that they might have to start manually sorting and processing all the old junk that is currently dumped straight into the shredder.

'Approximately half of what will be collected as WEEE is material that we are already recycling - washing machines, fridges, things that have a scrap value,' says Hewitt.

'But we may have to handle this differently under the regulations, such as cutting off the cables and removing circuit boards. And nearly everything has a circuit board in it these days. That sort of manual processing is something we just don't do at present; we really don't want to have to start taking all those appliances apart.'

He's also pretty sceptical that manufacturers will ever realise their goal of paying to recycle only their own products, or that the 'virtuous circle' of green product design will ever be closed. 'If we were treating the products of individual manufacturers separately, then the incentive to make them cheaper and easier to recycle could work. But this stuff will be delivered in skips containing goods produced by all kinds of manufacturers; how are we supposed to tell them apart?'

Another firm hoping for a WEEE windfall is Biffa, the UK's largest rubbish collection business. But its interest is largely logistical, as director of development and external affairs Peter Jones explains. 'We don't want to run a scrap-reprocessing business. There are companies out there doing this that will bite our arms off if they see us trying to muscle in on them. What we are interested in is consolidating the whole end-of-life management system, which currently is largely out of sight and out of mind, so we can bid for large regional WEEE contracts on the back of the logistics of waste collection, which is what we're good at.'

Jones believes that, properly organised, the costs of handling and processing WEEE will be nothing like as much as that £500 million estimate. 'We charge £50 a tonne to landfill waste at the moment. If we could bid for a five-year contract to pick up all the separately collected WEEE in, for example, the south-east, we'd quote at most £100 a tonne.'

Of course, that's only half the story - the collected waste also has to be recycled. 'The cheapest thing to do with all this stuff is put it in a big grinder. Just see it as a raw materials stream. I'd be amazed if that cost more than another £100 a tonne, without netting off the resale value of what's left. As a producer, this stuff belongs to you, not to the recyclers, so the overall cost might be around £150 a tonne. There are huge economies of scale to be made.'

Jones sees the future of all waste collection - not just that connected with the WEEE Directive - as an opportunity for his industry to move away from a low-margin commodity operation and into a higher-yielding, high technology service-oriented business. 'It's a racing certainty that before too long, householders will be charged by weight for anything that goes into their ordinary black bins. They'll get free recycling, but everything else will be charged for.'

Other opportunities lie at this end of the waste cycle, too. 'The whole waste business is a huge opportunity area; the sector turnover could double in five or six years. All the creativity we've seen so far going into the supply chains for getting stuff to the customer will have to be replicated in order to get stuff back when they've finished with it. It's a kind of reverse supply chain.

'Thanks to RFID chips,' adds Jones, 'soon we'll be able to point a reader at your wheelie bin and find out what you buy and who from. Retailers and producers would happily pay us for waste recovery if we can tell them who's buying their baked beans.'

So next time you chuck something out, remember: your rubbish says more about you that you might think.

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