WEEE Weekly: Overview

The duty of care legislation plays a crucial role in ensuring the safe management of waste, safeguarding both human health and the environment. For businesses seeking guidance on meeting their waste duty of care requirements, the code of practice (the Code) provides practical insights. Issued under section 34(7) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (EPA), the Code addresses the duty of care outlined in Section 34(1) of the same Act.

This comprehensive Code is applicable to entities engaged in importing, producing, carrying, keeping, treating, disposing of, or exercising control over specific waste in England or Wales. It is essential for businesses to understand that failure to comply with the duty of care constitutes an offence, with potential fines imposed by the courts, and in some cases, a fixed penalty notice may be issued instead of prosecution. Admissible as evidence in legal proceedings, the Code holds significance for Section 34(1) offences, and its rules must be considered in relevant case discussions.

Emphasizing the importance of compliance, this Code becomes particularly relevant for those whose waste activities are authorized or registered in Scotland or Northern Ireland but involve waste management in England or Wales. Cross-border operators are advised to adhere to Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s codes of practice alongside this one.

The regulators overseeing the duty of care are the Environment Agency (EA) in England, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in Wales, and local authorities. It’s worth noting that occupants of domestic properties disposing of household waste are exempted from the section 34(1) duty of care and have a distinct duty of care under Section 34(2A). Non-statutory guidance is provided in the Code to assist in meeting this duty of care responsibly. For businesses involved in WEEE electrical recycling, incorporating these guidelines ensures compliance with waste management regulations.

WEEE Categories

Annually, approximately 2 million tonnes of WEEE items are discarded by households and businesses in the UK. WEEE encompasses most products requiring a plug or battery. There are 14 distinct categories of WEEE:

  1. large household appliances
  2. small household appliances
  3. IT and telecommunications equipment
  4. consumer equipment
  5. lighting equipment
  6. electrical and electronic tools (except large scale stationary industrial tools)
  7. toys, leisure and sports equipment
  8. medical devices (except implanted and infected products)
  9. monitoring and control equipment
  10. automatic dispensers
  11. display equipment
  12. appliances containing refrigerants
  13. gas discharge lamps and light-emitting diode (LED) light sources
  14. PV panels (solar panels)

WEEE Treatment

Large household appliances, such as ovens, fridges, and washing machines, currently contribute to more than 40% of WEEE. However, there are substantial quantities of other equipment, including IT equipment (primarily computers), TVs (with over two million discarded annually), small household appliances like kettles and hair dryers, electrical tools, digital watches, electronic toys, and medical devices.

These items contain a diverse range of materials. For instance, an average TV consists of 6% metal and 50% glass, whereas a cooker is composed of 89% metal and only 6% glass. Additional materials include plastics, ceramics, and precious metals.

Due to the intricate combination of product types and materials, some of which are hazardous (such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury, and specific flame retardants), WEEE recycling presents various health risks that must be effectively managed. Exposure to substances released during processing, such as mercury from fluorescent tubes and lead and phosphorous pentachloride resulting from breaking cathode ray tubes, exemplifies these risks.

It is crucial to emphasize that implementing effective measures to control exposure to mercury and lead generally ensures adequate control of exposure to other hazardous substances.

The treatment of WEEE can vary significantly based on the WEEE category and the technology employed. Some treatment facilities utilize large-scale shredding technologies, while others employ a disassembly process, which can be manual, automated, or a combination of both.

For disassembly operations, treatment facilities must adhere to the minimum requirements outlined in the DEFRA document “Guidance on Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques (BATRRT) and treatment of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)” (PDF). This document provides an informative overview of the standards for WEEE treatment, recycling, and material recovery. It specifies requirements for the removal of certain substances and components (refer to Guidance on Specific Substances/Components below).

In the case of shredding operations, treatment facilities may not be obligated to remove these components and substances, contingent on the size and type of technology used. However, some hazardous components and substances must be removed beforehand to mitigate health and safety risks and prevent equipment damage.

The Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has made good practice guidance on the collection and processing of WEEE available online, including sections on WEEE treatment and health and safety policies and procedures. This guidance is directed at various audiences, including AATFs and waste management companies, and may be valuable for inspectors.

Guidance on Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques (BATRRT)

This summary is predominantly based on the DEFRA document “Guidance on Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques (BATRRT) and treatment of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)” (PDF).

Fluids – Typically found in heating and cooling appliances like fridges and freezers (coolant circuit) and oil-filled radiators. The WEEE Directive mandates the removal of all fluids from WEEE, and they must be safely extracted before crushing or shredding operations. Cooling appliances with refrigerants, such as fridges and freezers, often contain Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS) like CFCs and HCFCs, especially those manufactured before 1994.

Fridges and freezers identified as containing ammonia require extraction of the ammonia, which should be transferred to a suitable container for disposal. Ammonia poses fire and explosion risks and is potentially harmful to both the environment and human health.

Capacitors containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – Historically used in electrical equipment like capacitors and transformers, PCBs were extensively banned in open applications in 1972, with no new equipment utilizing them since 1986. Capacitors manufactured before 1976 are likely to contain PCBs, but the chance of finding them in appliances less than 20 years old is remote. PCB use was phased out entirely by the year 2000. Refer to “Do you know how to work safely with PCBs?” for guidance on capacitors containing PCBs.

Mercury-containing components like switches or back-lighting – Mercury is employed in various applications, including fluorescent lamps, medical equipment, data transmission, telecommunications, and mobile phones. While its use in electrical and electronic equipment has diminished, it is banned (except for certain exempt uses) from 2006. Removing circuit boards usually eliminates most mercury-containing components, such as switches.

Non-CRT flat panel screens (e.g., LCD, laptop and desktop monitors, and plasma screens) are entering the waste stream, necessitating specialized treatment. Mercury-containing fluorescent backlights, used to illuminate these screens, pose a challenge in end-of-life treatment. Manual disassembly is a common option for removing these backlights, but it comes with high labor costs and potential health and safety implications. Refer to the WRAP report on flat panel display recycling technologies for more information.

Toner cartridges, liquid and paste, as well as color toner – Commonly found in printers, fax machines, and photocopiers. These should be removed whole and intact to prevent toner dispersal and stored in appropriately labeled containers.

Asbestos waste and components containing asbestos – Asbestos was used in older appliances like electric coffee pots, toasters, and irons. While modern appliances are asbestos-free, treatment facility operators must be vigilant for older items that may contain asbestos. Appliances over 20 years old should be carefully examined and treated accordingly, with adherence to the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2006.

Lead and other hazardous substances, including phosphorous pentachloride in CRTs – Processing glass to remove the fluorescent coating in CRTs can liberate lead and other hazardous substances. Proper precautions should be taken to mitigate health risks during this process.

Components containing refractory ceramic fibers (RCFs) – Primarily used in furnace/heater/kiln linings, RCFs are classified as category 2 carcinogens. While domestic electrical appliances typically use mineral wools instead of RCFs, appliances possibly containing RCFs must be examined, and appropriate controls implemented before removal.

Components containing radioactive substances – Found in various equipment in commercial settings (e.g., fill level detectors, static eliminators, radium luminized dials, old trim phones), as well as smoke detectors.

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