Pascal Leroy, Secretary General, WEEE Forum, shares with Swaliha Shanavas his views on the WEEE recycling industry and the WEEE Forum’s vital role in bringing about positive changes in this constantly evolving sector.
Tell us a bit about your background and experience in this industry.
I am celebrating my 10th anniversary as Secretary General at the WEEE Forum. And this year, we celebrate the 15th anniversary of the WEEE Forum (and WEEE legislation in the EU). Previously, I was chief lobbyist for the association of home appliance makers in Brussels.
What is the current state of the WEEE recycling industry? How do you view the developments and the WEEE Forum’s role in this sector?
A lot has happened in the past 15 years. Till 2002, in most of Europe, there was no specialist WEEE de-pollution and recycling industry to speak of, there were few WEEE designated collection facilities, citizens were not aware of the hazards associated with discarding WEEE and no targets, or well defined responsibilities, were in place. In 2002, the EU legislators adopted Directive 2002/96/EC on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).
WEEE is a complex mixture of materials; it is a source of secondary raw materials including precious metals, but it also contains hazardous substances that cause environmental and health problems if not adequately managed. Electrical and electronic equipment also constantly evolve and the resultant WEEE follows this evolution, which affects the whole WEEE value chain. This, coupled with regulatory changes, make collection and recycling of WEEE a challenging business.
To address these challenges, six not-for-profit e-scrap producer responsibility organisations (PROs) founded the WEEE Forum in 2002. Their principal motivations were an ambition to be the best compliance schemes in Europe and the need to find a forum for knowledge exchange. The PROs of the Forum have been at the forefront of putting EPR legislation into practice, having adapted their business models to the different national transpositions of the Directive, meaning our platform is rich in diversity and knowledge.
In these 15 years, there have been significant changes in this market and the WEEE Forum members have proved to be a crucial player in the WEEE market by: Ensuring WEEE collection regardless of the volatility of prices of raw materials and energy; protecting producers against legal action and litigation; Providing intelligence on the value chain; Applying high standards in health, safety, and environment for WEEE collection and treatment, supported by the WEEE Forum’s own standards and years of research; Building bridges between producers, authorities, recyclers and citizens; Becoming a partner with authorities to meet reporting requirements and counter illegal practices; Addressing a global risk of supply of certain secondary raw materials by creating economic opportunities and economies of scale through the supply of volumes of WEEE for recovery of secondary (and critical) raw materials. There remains a lot to be done, for sure, but in many respects, progress is substantial.
What kind of development has there been in terms of innovative solutions?
There were no specialist treatment plants to speak of, 15 years ago. WEEE was not separately collected and the WEEE recycling market was embedded in the scrap and waste industry. The calculation of WEEE recovery rates was subject to different interpretations and results were anything but comparable. Practices to de-pollute WEEE were not standardised and often disregarded. Tools and resources, tailor made for the European sector, were necessary to level the playing field.
At the same time, the composition, complexity and life time of products as well as material prices have changed and continue to change rapidly. Recyclers must now be able to recycle and de-pollute the latest electronic gadgets and flat panel displays as well as decades old TVs and handle pentane in refrigerators that has replaced the use of CFCs and HFCs. Recycling technologies and infrastructure have had to adapt to meet these challenges. To add to this, scavenging is rampant in some parts of Europe. The CWIT project estimated that one-third of end-of-life cooling and freezing appliances collected in Europe contain no compressor.
The PROs of the WEEE Forum have helped structure a cleaner, more effective and more transparent WEEE treatment market. The WEEELABEX project (2009-2012) introduced a unique set of harmonised standards of excellence for collection, handling, transport, recycling and preparation for the re-use of WEEE.
What in your view are the biggest impediments to the growth of WEEE recycling sector in both developed and developing countries?
The biggest impediment is volume. If the volume of WEEE is insignificant, it will be difficult to develop a profitable business. Consumers need to be aware of the hazards and that WEEE needs to be returned and to what collection points.
Research undertaken by CWIT (Countering WEEE Illegal Trade) found that in Europe only one-third (3.3 million tonnes) of all the e-waste discarded in 2012 ended up in the figures officially reported by collection and recycling systems. The other two-thirds (6.15 million tonnes) was either exported (1.5 million tonnes), recycled under non-compliant conditions in Europe (3.15 million tonnes), scavenged for valuable parts (0.75 million tonnes) or simply thrown in residual waste bins (0.75 million tonnes). This is clearly one of the areas on which the whole WEEE value chain must focus its efforts. We must continue to engage with consumers, collection points, logistics companies and recyclers, and, in so doing, improve the performance of the system, not only from a business point of view but also with an environmentally responsible vision.
How important is WEEE recycling in the context of Circular Economy and what are the opportunities in this segment?
The Circular Economy’s focus is on business models to extend the lifetime of products (sharing, repair, leasing…). Recycling will continue to play a role, because all products reach their end of life at some point. But the focus is shifting from recycling to other opportunities.
What role does legislation play in this sector, and where does EPR stand in WEEE at present?
Whenever you need someone to pick up the bill, you need legislation. We have 15 years of experience with EPR in Europe. The challenge is to make sure that everyone who collects also reports and complies with legislation.
What are the significant changes one can expect in this sector in the near future?
One of the significant changes will be with regard to the recovery of critical raw materials (CRMs), which is crucial for tech industries. At present, the European Union is promoting the concept of circular economy where the focus is on using, reusing and then recovering the materials to gain maximum value. The recycling rate for CRMs such as rare earth elements is currently estimated at less than 1%. The unrecovered materials do not become available for the industry because all the players have adopted the material-centric approach rather than a product-centric approach to WEEE. The product-centric approach involves systems is based on long term expertise of minerals and metallurgical processing, where systems are designed to recover the maximum of materials rather than just those that occur in the highest quantity or for which the largest market exists.
In this context, two initiatives that the WEEE Forum is involved with are also important. We are the originator and leader of ‘WEEE 2020’, a formally recognised Raw Materials Commitment under the Commission’s European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials. WEEE 2020 seeks to promote or co-ordinate initiatives aimed at making the WEEE value chain circular or more resource efficient.
Secondly, through Prospecting Secondary Raw Materials in the Urban Mine and Mining Wastes (ProSUM) the WEEE Forum contributes to developing a centralised database where all primary and secondary raw materials data will be easily accessible on one platform, and will provide the foundation for improving Europe’s position on raw material supply, with the ability to accommodate more wastes and resources in the future.
The WEEE Forum just celebrated its 15th anniversary. Briefly, what have been the forum’s achievements and what is the vision for the future?
During the last 15 years, the WEEE Forum has become a vital player in the WEEE community. Today, the PROs of the WEEE Forum represent 31,000 producers of electrical and electronic appliances, which is most of the world’s leading technology companies and household appliance manufacturers that are liable parties under EPR legislation. The collective knowledge and experience of the members combines to make the WEEE Forum a prominent and respected voice in the WEEE community.
We estimate that in the past 15 years over 90,000 producers (our members represent 36% of this number) registered with national WEEE registers across Europe. PROs have undertaken numerous initiatives and have led on many major research projects aimed at enhancing their management strategies and operational efficiency through a better understanding of the WEEE value chain and stakeholders involved. The CWIT project reinforced the importance of a strong and well-connected WEEE community, concluding that building multi-stakeholder platforms and connections is the best approach to tackle WEEE illegal trade.
The WEEELABEX project (2009-2012), which was recognised in 2014 as ‘LIFE Best of Best’ project, introduced a unique set of harmonised standards of excellence for collection, handling, transport, recycling and preparation for the re-use of WEEE. These standards were the seed of the latest series of 50625 EN standards currently under preparation. In 2013 producer responsibility organisations in the WEEE Forum set up the WEEELABEX Organisation to train and certify auditors of WEEE processing sites, which has been a great success.
As project leaders of ProSUM, funded by the Horizon 2020 programme, we and our members contribute to the creation of an EU Urban Mine Knowledge Data Platform, with data and intelligence on WEEE, batteries, end of life vehicles and mining wastes. In 2005, the WEEE Forum also developed the first version of WF-RepTool, an online database application to determine WEEE treatment and de-pollution results in a transparent and traceable manner. The tool is available to the WEEE recycling industry in general and makes the full WEEE value chain accountable for the calculation of recycling and recovery rates.
What do you love most about your job, and what is the most challenging aspect?
I love the job’s versatility, being able to give direction to a group of companies and people
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I do long-distance running, completing two Marathons a year.