Analysing samples of transported e-waste is time-consuming. We hope that artificial intelligence can take over this task in the future. This will not only make the work quicker but will also help to close the loops.
Since 2018, Recupel has been collaborating with IDLab, an imec research group at the University of Antwerp, on a method to automate e-waste sampling. Lorenzo Glorie of Recupel explains how this works: “We carry out regular random checks to be able to calculate the contributions that manufacturers must pay for the transport and processing of electronic appliances. Laptops, mobile phones, radios, DVD players, and so on are collected in recycling parks. To be able to carry out proper random checks, you need to analyse a lot of appliances. As this is a time-consuming process, we want to automate the sampling.”
“Employees at sheltered workshops that carry out the analyses take appliances from a skip or pallet and place them on the scales. At the same time, six cameras take photos which are uploaded to a software programme. The self-learning algorithm uses these photographs to determine the type of appliance by cross-checking with a database containing hundreds of thousands of photos. The employee of this or another sheltered workshop will then check whether the algorithm has made the right choice.”
“The algorithm is already working well, but it still has a lot to learn. If it can be made to work flawlessly, we want to use it on a large scale in the future. That does not mean we would no longer need the sheltered workshops as the appliances would still have to be placed on and removed from the scales. This cannot be automated since the appliances often have cables that can get caught up.”
“Eventually, artificial intelligence can be used in recycling firms, for instance, to identify appliances that contain valuable materials. We can then sort these even more accurately.”
“We are also looking at whether we can teach the algorithm to recognise the brand of an appliance using a QR code or a brand logo. We want to develop a database containing all the information about a product such as its year of manufacture and whether it is a hazardous product. This will give us a more complete picture of what appliances are being discarded. We can then share this information with manufacturers, who want information about how many of their appliances are collected every year and how long they were used for. They too have to look for ways to make their products more sustainable, not only because it is an EU requirement but also because consumers are demanding it. They can use this information to improve their designs or choose materials that extend the service life of their products. So this is another way that artificial intelligence can close the loops.”
“As far as I know, no other countries are using artificial intelligence to analyse e-waste, so what we are doing is pioneering.”
“The technology that we are using is certainly not new. Artificial intelligence is already used in biology and agriculture. For example, scientists in Sweden have taught a device to recognise various species of fish. The same technology is used to sort batteries. But as far as I know, no other countries are using artificial intelligence to analyse e-waste, so what we are doing is pioneering. In the future, we would like to collaborate with other countries to automate their sampling systems as well. This means that we not only help them but at the same time, also improve our database so that the algorithm can learn even faster.”
The EU objective is for 65% of the average weight of electrical and electronic equipment that had been placed on the Belgian market in the preceding three years to be collected. Belgium has not achieved this yet, as e-waste too often remains under the radar. According to a study by Deloitte, 30% of the electrical and electronic equipment placed on the Belgian market is currently untraceable.
That is why all the various actors in the chain must disclose precisely how much e-waste they place on the market, collect, and the volumes they process or repurpose. However, not everyone is reporting this information to Recupel, so we have no guarantees that all equipment is being processed correctly. Reporting is crucial if we want to determine how far we are from reaching the European collection target. Correct and complete results are also necessary to achieve the collection percentages that the EU has set for its Member States.
In 2018, together with seven partners (non-profit organisations), we developed the BeWeee tool, which is a simple reporting tool for companies. The data collected does not come to us but is sent directly to the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels governments.
In 2018, this tool was used to report around 20,000 tonnes. This is three times more than in 2017 when 6,662 tonnes were reported via BeWeee. However, this is still not enough to achieve the collection objectives that the EU has set. To do so, some 85,000 tonnes of e-waste should be reported via the BeWeee tool, which is 65,000 tonnes more than is currently the case. That may sound like a large increase, but it is possible if all players meet their obligations and report correctly. In 2018, only 25% of the companies that do not report to Recupel used the BeWeee tool. So, in the coming years, there is plenty of room for growth, which makes us optimistic.
Old or broken appliances have been piling up in businesses, schools, and healthcare institutions. In 2019, Recupel launched a digital marketplace for end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment to ensure that these appliances can also be collected and recycled.
It is estimated that an average organisation will have 200 kilograms of unused PCs, fridges, coffee machines, and other electrical and electronic equipment somewhere in its storage spaces. Although these can be repaired or recycled, organisations are often put off by the administrative and logistical hassle involved.
That is why we launched the digital marketplace Smartloop. Companies and organisations can offer their old electronic appliances, whether broken or still working, to approved collectors. Between them, they agree on the price and the time and location of the collection. This is the quickest way to ensure proper processing.
The tool also benefits the approved collectors as they gain access to additional e-waste that would otherwise have stayed under the radar. Moreover, they get new customers. So it’s a win-win situation for both parties and the circular economy, with more appliances being processed properly.
Every year, over 200,000 end-of-life fridges and freezers are not collected by certified processors. If those appliances are not processed properly, harmful substances may be released. In 2019, we set up an extensive awareness campaign for consumers and businesses. And it was a success!
Fridges and freezers contain harmful refrigerants and blowing agents. If these are not removed carefully, they may be released into the atmosphere, which is dangerous as they deplete the ozone layer and contribute to global warming. As a comparison: one incorrectly processed fridge emits the same amount of CO2 as a car driving 7,500km. For 226,524 ‘missing’ fridges that means CO2 emissions equal to driving 1,698,930,000 kilometres in a diesel car, which is no less than 42,394 times around the world.
Furthermore, fridges contain very valuable materials, such as copper. At Recupel, we can recycle 98% of the materials in fridges using innovative recycling techniques. So, fridges are important urban mines.
To persuade electrical and electronics goods retailers and kitchen fitters to collaborate with us, we launched the ‘We recycle properly’ quality label. This label identifies traders with which consumers can safely leave their old fridges.
We also came up with a ‘track & win’ competition to test the recycling circuit: anyone with an end-of-life fridge could register it on the website www.frigosdisparus.be. A tracker was then installed in the fridge to follow its entire journey, from collection to processing. Steps could be taken if it turned out that fridges ended up with parties without the required permits.
The collection figures show that the campaign has not missed its effect. In 2018 there were approximately 226 524 missing fridges, in 2019 there are still about 190 000 missing fridges. The collection results of cooling and freezing appliances are on the rise: in 2019 Recupel and its partners collected 9% more appliances. Meanwhile, 249 kitchen builders and electro dealers signed the Recupel quality pact. In in total, this represents 630 points of sales.
Everyone can contribute to the circular economy, including consumers. That is why, every year, we run light-hearted campaigns to persuade people to take their old or broken devices to Recupel collection points. We then give these appliances a second life.
In 2018, Belgians brought no less than 9,633,793 light bulbs and fittings to Recupel collection points. To show our thanks, we launched the ‘Verborgen Parels’ (‘Hidden Gems’) campaign that offered everyone the opportunity to nominate a hidden gem. In total, we put 10 beautiful but underrated places in Belgium in the spotlight. Discover them at tresorscaches.recupel.be.
Since 2016, we have been running Café Recupel to encourage people to drop off their old electrical and electronic equipment for reuse or recycling. The principle is simple: bring one or more old appliances to our pop-up café, and you will be treated to a bowl of soup, a fresh juice or a local beer. Visitors are also given more information about the importance of reusing and recycling electrical and electronic equipment. In 2019, Café Recupel opened its doors in Ghent, Brussels and Louvain-la-Neuve.
It is estimated that in Belgium, there are 3.2 million mobile phones discarded in drawers and cupboards. This is a real waste because highly valuable material can be extracted from them. But mobiles often contain memories and photos, so it is difficult for some people, especially young people, to say goodbye to them. To make this process easier, we organised a fun funeral. Led by master of ceremonies Bert Kruismans, several people, including some influencers, gave their precious phones a fitting send-off.
Together with GoodPlanet (an organisation that delivers workshops and campaigns about sustainable development), we came up with an interactive game for young people aged 14-18 in secondary education. The ‘Hunt for Raw Materials’ (‘Grondstoffenjacht’) shows players where electrical and electronic appliances are made, what materials they contain, and why it is essential to bring broken appliances to collection points. They also learn about the concepts ‘circular economy’ and ‘urban mining’ during the workshop because, after all, it is best to “catch them young”.
Recupel organises the workshops in conjunction with GoodPlanet.
“A few years ago, the concept of the circular economy was still relatively unknown among the general public in this country. That is changing. During the Hunt for Raw Materials workshops, our education staff tell secondary school students the circular story of raw materials instead of a linear waste story. Thanks to the interactive game format, and by letting the youngsters use their smartphones, they really get into it.” Peter Hulpiau from GoodPlanet