Europe can count on the expertise of the WEEE Forum to tackle the issue of e-waste. Pascal Leroy, the forum's Director-General, explains the role of Recupel, which is one of the driving forces behind his organisation.
Recupel was one of the founding members of the WEEE Forum. Why was it involved from the start?
Belgium already had e-waste legislation before the European Directive was established. As Recupel believed it was important to share knowledge with its counterparts abroad, it set up the WEEE Forum together with organisations from Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. A year later, Europe introduced a directive on end-of-life equipment, and collection organisations from all other EU Member States joined the forum. Today, the WEEE Forum has 40 members: mostly from European countries, but also from Canada, India, Nigeria and Australia.
There is now a European standard for the collection and processing of e-waste. How have you contributed to this?
In 2012, we took the initiative to develop a European standard called WEEELABEX, which stands for WEEE LABoratory of EXcellence. In this standard, we describe how waste must be collected, stored, transported, prepared and processed. The WEEELABEX principles have since been formulated into an official European standard, that has subsequently been recognised in EU law.
When you work with companies that have been awarded the WEEELABEX label, you know that they respect the European rules on e-waste. All processors that work with Recupel have this label.
By 2019, all EU Member States had to achieve a minimum collection rate of 65% of the average weight of what had been placed on the market in the preceding three years or 85% of what was discarded. Why is it that almost none of the Member States manage to meet this target?
Estonia was actually the only EU Member State that met the 65% target. One of the explanations is that Recupel and its foreign counterparts have no control over what happens to a large proportion of the end-of-life electronics. Our laptops, light bulbs, mobile phones, and electric toothbrushes still too often end up in residual waste.
Besides, there are some cowboys out there. Washing machines and fridges are ending up at scrap merchants or are being illegally exported. Sometimes the e-waste completely disappears from the radar. We are working closely with the UN to tackle these illicit international channels. Later this year, we will publish the outcomes of our reflections.
Recupel is often said to be a pioneer in terms of reporting. Why?
Recupel came up with the idea of breaking down the recycling percentages by categories: plastics, ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals, etc. This detailed reporting allows for more extensive analysis and better interpretation. In this way, a quick glance will tell you which streams are easier to recycle.
WEEE stands for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The WEEE Forum, established in 2002, brings together 40 organisations that are responsible for collecting e-waste both in and outside Europe. The experts in this organisation develop international standards, highlight good practices and facilitate exchange.
Did you know that there are also private companies that collect and process end-of-life electronic appliances? One of our partners is Out of Use in Beringen. This company collects old IT equipment from companies and takes care of the optimal processing. It also sends its collection and recycling figures to Recupel.
What exactly does Out Of Use do?
CEO Mark Adriaenssens: We only collect end-of-life appliances from companies and give them a second life. If possible, we reuse them; otherwise, we recycle them. First, we check whether the collected devices can be reused. If so, we erase all data and make the device ready for reuse. In this way, we act at the source and keep materials in the loop with minimal intervention and energy consumption.
Appliances we cannot reuse are recycled. First, we remove substances that are harmful to the environment, such as oil, asbestos, or printer cartridges, and then dismantle the appliances. The depolluted e-waste and components are then taken to partner businesses, where they are further recycled mechanically.
Our goal is to provide businesses and organisations with a total solution for recycling their end-of-life IT equipment while focusing on sustainable entrepreneurship and creating social employment.
How do you know that the e-waste is processed sustainably?
As part of our sustainability objectives, we only work with processors that are WEEELABEX-certified. This means that they conform to strict European standards for e-waste recycling and report in accordance with Recupel’s requirements. This certificate offers Recupel and us the certainty that the recycled material will end up back in the loop. In 2018, we became the first Belgium B2B organisation to be WEEELABEX-certified. Through the WEEELABEX organisation – which Recupel also belongs to via the WEEE Forum – we can benchmark with the best practices in our sector, which keeps us on our toes.
Additionally, we have signed the Recupel charter, which means we are committed to collecting e-waste and processing it in accordance with the legislation. We are regularly audited by Recupel, which gives potential customers extra reassurance that we respect the rules.
How do you limit your CO2 emissions?
“For us, the environment is the most important thing, which is why we prefer to work with Belgian recyclers. It makes no sense to first ship the appliances to low-wage countries and at the same time, import new primary raw materials. This would only mean higher CO2 emissions.
We also allow our customers to make their own contributions to the climate. They can donate the compensation they receive for their appliances to Natuurpunt, which will then buy a piece of land to plant trees. This scheme is catching on, and we hope to exceed one hectare of woods this year.
Out of Use strongly believes in corporate social responsibility. How is this reflected in your operations?
We focus on the groups in our society that are struggling. For example, the majority of our staff has been long-term unemployed or is over 55 years of age. Just like Recupel, we work with sheltered workshops that perform simple tasks for us, such as removing CDs from cases. For larger jobs, we also collaborate with Leuven prison, which allows the prisoners to earn money and reintegrate more quickly into society. Finally, we are working on solutions to close the digital gap. Disadvantaged families can visit our non-profit organisation (vzw) Brussel.Circular in Tour&Taxi in Brussels to buy second-hand devices very cheaply.
How does Close the Gap work exactly?
We collect end-of-life laptops and mobile phones from businesses and organisations in Belgium and the Netherlands. These devices are repaired and then shipped to Africa or South America, where they are used in schools or public institutions. To reach people in isolated areas, we have built Digitrucks, which are classrooms on wheels where, among other things, ICT workshops are held.
But it’s not just a charity project, it’s more about empowerment. We want to give vulnerable groups access to the right information. Using the internet, they can find out how to protect themselves properly against diseases or learn about concepts such as democracy. Or, by using the internet, they can start their own small businesses. For many Africans, ICT is a stepping stone towards improving their situation.
You also want to tackle the e-waste mountain in developing countries. How do you do that?
In many developing countries there is no intricate e-waste collection network similar to that which Recupel has set up in Belgium. Furthermore, there is no awareness amongst local populations about collecting end-of-life equipment. To prevent broken laptops and mobile phones from being dumped or burned, we set up a collection system in 2009. Worldloop is currently active in five African countries, namely Kenya, Tanzania, the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda. The principle is simple: if we send 20,000 laptops to Kenya for sustainable education projects, we ensure that 20,000 end-of-life laptops are collected and processed in the same country.
When we started Worldloop, we consulted Recupel. They made their extensive expertise available to us, supported us in carrying out a feasibility study, and gave us financial help to set up an African e-waste organisation. For two years now, Worldloop has been working completely independently, integrated into the operations of Close the Gap. With our success story, we want to convince local governments to set up large-scale e-waste collection systems. They would be local ‘Recupels’, where ‘importers’ would be obliged to pay a contribution for the transport and recycling of the appliances they place on the market.
What happens to the African e-waste? Where is it processed?
We opt for a best-of-both-worlds approach. The appliances are taken apart completely in Africa. This is done manually, which is a very efficient way to recover the materials that can be reused and the components that can be recycled. The components go to local recycling plants. For example, we recently opened a new recycling plant in Kenya.
We send the complex and harmful parts back to Belgium. Here they are processed by top companies that use the best available techniques and have a wealth of experience in this field. Recupel still helps us with the smaller waste streams that come from Africa by getting them recycled at the recycling companies they work with.
In terms of managing e-waste, Belgium ranks among the world leaders. But is the problem of the digital gap also under control?
Yes. Many disadvantaged families in Belgium also have no access to the internet or ICT. The coronavirus crisis has increased awareness of this issue. I fear that after the coronavirus crisis, there will be an economic crisis which will further widen the gap between rich and poor. That’s why we are expanding our non-profit organisation (vzw) DigitalForYouth, founded in 2019 by Close the Gap vzw and DNS.be vzw. We try to make as much refurbished ICT material as possible available to vulnerable young people. In April 2020, we collected 15,000 laptops for disadvantaged pupils in secondary schools across Belgium, so they too can receive lessons remotely.