OPINION: With plastics topping the agenda, Anthony Sant, sales and marketing director for AO Recycling, asks – are the other things we throw away being forgotten?
Plastic has undoubtedly been the top environmental issue which has captured both the public and the media’s imagination this year. And in our digital, social media-driven age it’s curious that it was a traditional television wildlife documentary series which was the catalyst for this spike in concern.
The current huge levels of interest in the harmful effects of waste plastic can be wholly attributed to a single episode of the latest series of the BBC’s stunning Blue Planet – and the plight of a whale calf killed by our plastic waste and seemingly mourned by its grief stricken mother. It was a powerful and shocking moment – one of those searing images which has the potential to jolt us out of our complacency.
We have of course been here before. The world has seen its fair share of environmental catastrophe over the years – from wild birds stricken by oil slicks to polar bears struggling over disappearing sea ice. How long plastic stays at the top of the agenda only time will tell.
And while it’s plastic which is making the headlines at the moment – and driving the conversation on social media – there are other waste issues which perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve. Dare I say it: but they are just not very fashionable at the moment.
Perhaps the most obvious of these is WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) which in most cases contain many environmentally harmful items, easily released into the environment if not recycled correctly. Right now, it just doesn’t have the same shock factor as plastic – yet left unchecked it has the potential to be every bit as harmful, if not more so. The disposal of larger appliances presents a particular challenge – and to be fair it too has been the subject of media and public scrutiny in the past. Remember the fridge mountain crisis?
That issue arose because we didn’t have the capacity to deal with fridges containing ozone damaging CFCs back in the early 2000s. The recycling industry eventually caught up with the issue – but that’s not to say there aren’t pressing problems which, left unchecked, couldn’t cause major environmental harm.
In the UK alone we throw away 1.4 million tonnes of WEEE every year – including 3.5million fridges. The recycling industry is operating at full tilt as it attempts to keep up with this growing mountain of waste (some of which includes plastic by the way). And as the amount of WEEE thrown away increases more capacity will be needed in the years ahead.
As the UK’s leading online retailer of fridges and Large Domestic Appliances (LDA), AO.com has stepped up to the plate recently with the launch of AO Recycling. Our new waste management venture has got off to a flying start with the opening of a state of the art WEEE recycling facility in Telford in Shropshire which will process about one fifth of the fridges thrown away every year in the UK.
But capacity is only one issue. There are others which have to be addressed if the environmental impact of WEEE is going to be minimised. Firstly, efforts need to be made to ensure discarded appliances find their way to responsible recyclers.
All too often fridges fall into the hands of unscrupulous operators who strip appliances of their valuable compressors and fly tip them. In the meantime, harmful gases, oils and refrigerants can leak into the environment. Others head to scrap yards where they are disposed of in car frags – again allowing pollutants into the environment.
At AO.com we believe the growth in online retailing offers an opportunity to tackle this problem. Our solution is simple: increase the amount of unwanted appliances taken away by retailers on delivery of new products. It makes sense from a logistics point of view, it’s convenient for the consumer and better for the environment. And, in our view, it will lead to better standards.
“If we don’t act we run the risk of repeating the disastrous fridge mountain crisis of more than a decade ago.”Anthony Sant
We’ve set out our case in a recently published ‘Document for Change’ which we produced in response to the Government’s WEEE consultation. Only one in four appliances are currently taken away by retailers on delivery of a new appliance. We believe there is the potential to increase this to 70 per cent in the short to medium term.
Such a move will involve a shift away from disposal via Designated Collection Facilities at council-run Household Waste Recycling Centres. This route may be allowing producers to tick the boxes required to meet their obligations under WEEE regulations – but it doesn’t necessarily ensure appliances are recycled in the most efficient and environmentally responsible way possible. In fact it’s from these sites that many appliances disappear into the shady world of unregulated recycling.
If we don’t act we run the risk of repeating the disastrous fridge mountain crisis of more than a decade ago. We will store up problems for our society, economy and environment which will cause us even greater challenges further down the line. But if the recycling industry, policy makers, producers and retailers can act to develop a new model then the rewards are there for the taking.
Together we can ensure this potentially harmful waste stream can became an asset not a problem. And who knows: perhaps we can head off the risk of appearing in a future David Attenborough documentary in years to come.
Hosted by letsrecycle.com, the WEEE Conference (6 June, Cavendish Conference Centre, London) will feature discussions on regulations, licensing and recycling crime, and collaborative work to increase WEEE collections.
To book your place or for more information please visit: https://www.weeeconference.com/