Environmental protection needs high standards all-round but for the recycling sector finding the investment to achieve this can be a challenge.
Unusually for the retail world, AO.com – a leading online electrical retailer – has opted to invest directly in the construction and equipping of a £10 million bespoke fridge and freezer shredding and materials recovery plant.
And, rather than just going for the minimum in terms of what was needed to satisfy regulators, the company has had the plant designed to meet the highest standards required by the current regulations, especially in terms of catching all the gases and foams contained within the white goods it receives, predominantly from customers who have purchased a new AO machine. The plant itself removes all hazardous components and creates value streams of materials as well as creating a reuse division.
The 80- tonne machine, built exclusively for AO, works by smashing fridges to their constituent metals, plastics and insulation foam using heavy duty rotating steel chains which operate inside a sealed chamber. Materials are then separated and sorted at the plant for recycling. Packaging will also be recycled at the AO Recycling site, while some appliances will be refurbished and sold on as secondhand items.
Known as AO Recycling, the Telford-based business has its roots in the earlier development of a fridge recycling plant created by John and Robert Sant, at The Recycling Group in Wales back in 2002.
Today, following the acquisition of the company by AO, the business is now run on a daily basis by Robert and Anthony Sant, with support from their father, John.
One of The Recycling Group’s (TRG) sources of fridges had been from via the Environment Agency when fridge ‘mountains’ were cleared. Anthony traces the development of the business, explaining that TRG needed its own regular deliveries of fridges and freezers for processing “So we looked at the logistics sector”. We started looking at transport companies and started working with a firm called Expert Logistics from 2004.”
Fast forward, and Expert Logistics started working with DRL, the forerunner of AO, in 2008 and then a year later DRL bought Expert Logistics.
Anthony says: “This was really a deal out of necessity as AO wanted to take control of the logistics work as this was, and is, a crucial part of the business in terms of ensuring the high level of customer service AO wanted to always offer its customers.”
AO was to grow and in 2014 it was listed on the Stock Exchange and more recently expanded into mainland Europe.
“We have got to this level by doing the right thing by our customers” he says.
The direct involvement with recycling came out because of a recognition that recycling is a major part of AO’s business, Anthony explains. “With more than 260,000 tonnes of fridges sold annually across the industry, that means between 2.8m to 3.5m are ‘thrown away’ and the number is growing. From AO’s point of view within the sector there isn’t the capacity to deal with all this, especially in the summer when more fridges are sold. And, fridges are getting heavier despite being made of lighter materials.
Having its own recycling plant means that AO can be safe in knowing there is a route for used machines it collects from customers, as Anthony explains.
“Having the recycling side of AO means there is a secure route for the fridges collected from customers and there is an assurance of cost effectiveness and the meeting of high environmental standards.” And, he notes that the plant itself is not only likely to be the “most efficient” in the UK in environmental terms, and “yes, we have built the best fridge plant in the UK, maybe in Europe, maybe the world”.
“We need investments upstream to ensure there are plants to process the material and produce pellets.”Anthony Sant
For AO Recycling, the quality level achieved, which the company emphasises can be monitored and recorded, is not seen as the norm across the sector. There is a concern, says Anthony, that operators of other plants, particularly older ones, are likely to face more challenges in being able to meet the same high standards because of the equipment needed.
Proper handling of waste fridges and freezers is essential, says Anthony. He reasons that if more came back via the retailer tack back route, they would not be missing compressors or be damaged which can be the case when they come back from civic amenity sites or flytips.
Funding for the recycling work comes out of the WEEE system but AO Recycling is concerned that there may be an uneven playing field in terms of meeting standards and buying evidence. They reason that that the government and Environment Agency need to be driving recyclers to achieve the highest standards and that this may cost slightly more than just simply arranging for fridges to be processed.
Plastics is a particular case in point, says Anthony. “We need to ensure that all the foams and plastics from a fridge are collected and recycled and we need investments upstream to ensure there are plants to process the material and produce pellets. But, someone has to pay for this. Plastics make up approximately 25% of fridges by weight, so,” he emphasises, “high levels of recycling on this stream are vital.”
The hard styrene plastics produced have good demand, he says, because they are only derived from fridges and freezers. But there are challenges because if the price reduced dramatically it can be difficult for producers to cope unless a high quality is achieved and if the 25% is not recycled, then that will impact on the figures from the authorised approved treatment facilities which handle WEEE.
He would like to see investment in plastics sortation in the UK. “This is not an easy thing to fix. It would generate jobs in the UK if we did invest but who would invest without some assurances of volume?
“We are leaving the EU and we need to fund new facilities in the UK. Every bit of money we spend on recycling stays in the UK. The government has said it wants to see a better environment in its 25 year plan and we would endorse that and say we need to invest in the environment.”
It is against this background that AO Recycling wants to see changes to the way the UK recycle fridges. Anthony explains: “We see 2018 as a big year for the recycling industry. We want to change the way the UK recycles fridges. This involves the legal rules, the way the industry works, ways to increase retailer take backs to reduce leakage and raising standards in the industry. We would also like to see more investment in all areas of recycling, not just fridges, including mixed plastics and small WEEE.
“We need more visibility of the processes and achievement of standards with government intervention to drive this. This may lead to the need for added investment, driving up gate fees, but we need to see this investment.”