Waste of electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is one the fastest growing waste streams in the EU, growing at 3-5% per year, with a generation above 12 million tonnes estimated for 2020. WEEE is a complex mixture of valuable materials that can cause major environmental and health problems if not properly managed due to their hazardous content. The improvement of WEEE prevention, collection and recovery is essential to boost circular economy and enhance resource efficiency, which require new approaches in the design, manufacturing, use and end of life (EoL) of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE).
The first WEEE Directive (2002/96/EC) provided a legal framework in order to structure the WEEE management, promote the recycling and avoid its landfill. However, the recast WEEE Directive (2012/19/EU) entered into force in 2012, setting out ambitious targets for the following terms:
- Collection: gathering of waste, including the preliminary sorting and preliminary storage of waste for the purposes of transport to a waste treatment facility
- Recovery: any operation the principal result of which is waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil a particular function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function, in the plant or in the wider economy
- Preparation for re-use: checking, cleaning or repairing recovery operations, by which products or components of products that have become waste are prepared so that they can be re-used without any other pre-processing
- Recycling: any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes
What are we doing?
Facing this situation, specialized companies such as INDUMETAL, carry out the integral handling of WEEE and complex scraps. Firstly, the WEEE is classified and then depolluted removing the hazardous components by means of a specific procedures and processes. Once depolluted, the wastes are introduced in the recycling process where, following successive steps of grinding, size reduction, mechanic separation and concentration steps, several materials from electronic scraps are separated and concentrated.
However, despite the effort of the recycling companies, only one-third of WEEE in the EU is being reported by compliance schemes as separately collected and managed. The remaining two-thirds are either collected by unregistered companies and treated or even illegally exported, or disposed of as part of residual waste.
The total amount of WEEE properly collected in the EU was 3.9 million tonnes in 2015; 88% of this amount was recovered, whilst the amount recycled/re-used was 81%, with re-use only representing 1.4%. These rates have been sufficient in the past, but now the targets are more ambitious and it is critical to make stronger efforts.
What should we do in the future?
At present, the main driving forces for WEEE treatment are the removal of hazardous substances and the recycling of metals, since they have a high market price and have so far contributed mostly to meet the WEEE recovery/recycling targets. However, other alternative and complementary solutions are still needed to move the EEE sector towards a true circular economy, allowing to reach the regulatory targets and helping to reduce the illegal export of WEEE and the derived impacts.
In this framework, HR-Recycler project is focused on the development of a ‘hybrid human-robot recycling plant for electrical and electronic equipment’ operating in an indoor environment, replacing thus multiple currently manual, expensive, hazardous and time-consuming tasks of the WEEE materials pre-processing. Attending to these objectives, HR-RECYCLER project expects to improve current WEEE treatment practices, extracting, sorting and classifying different components and concentrated fractions with a higher economic and environmental value.
With this project, INDUMETAL gets close to these new concepts of collaboration and automatization, expecting that the achieved results will allow the company: (1) to stand out as a leading company in technologies applied to the treatment of WEEE and (2) to improve the current working conditions, the productivity and the process costs.