WEEE businesses concerned over ‘illegal’ fridge recycling

19 February 2015 | By Chiara Francavilla

Some specialist recyclers of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) are urging the Environment Agency (EA) to do more to enforce regulations mandating that fridges be recycled in dedicated plants. They complain of being undercut by "illegal” operators.

MRW exclusive

Grantham-based Environcom and Wolverhampton-based Aqua Force Recycling both operate advanced fridge recycling facilities, which were upgraded in light of EA rules from February 2013 which deemed pentane fridges to comprise hazardous materials.

Compressors, the most valuable part of fridges for metal recovery, must be removed using ‘appro­priate equipment and by suitably trained staff at a permitted facility’. Fridges must also be stored and handled ‘appropriately’ to prevent damage to the cooling circuit or compressor.

But chief executive at Environcom, told MRW that significant volumes of fridges are being dismantled in yards which do not follow EA guidance. He said that on a weekly basis his company is offered fridges with missing compressors.

"It is having a massive impact on legitimate businesses because there is not enough volume to keep us at capacity. We are basically loss-making,” he added.

Similar experiences have been reported by Tony Naik, sales director at Aqua Force, who said the number of requests to process such partially recycled fridges had increased at his company in the past 18 months.

The EA told MRW that it had increased efforts to enforce the regulations and it encouraged firms to report suspect incidents.

A spokesman said: "Waste companies have a duty of care to ensure this is managed properly. As part of an active programme of compliance, [we have officers who are] inspecting sites that manage waste metals and taking steps to ensure that operators comply with the law.

"We have alerted our inspectors to be vigilant for signs of poor or illegal management and treatment of waste fridges, including the compressor components. This includes our inspections of metal recycling facilities.”

Feeney has set up an informal organisation to be the voice of WEEE recyclers in the UK. The group is calling on Defra to clarify what is considered ‘appropriate handling’ of end-of-life fridges, and to classify compressors as hazardous materials unless they are drained under a vacuum.

Many scrap yard operators in the UK are members of British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA), which Feeney said could be taking a more active role.

But BMRA director general Ian Hetherington responded: "While we continue to take issue with the EA’s reclassification of the materials recovered from fridges containing pentane gas in the insulating foam as hazardous, the agency’s guidance must be followed.

"We certainly do not encourage our members or anyone else to process fridges that have been depolluted in breach of their permit.”

Scale of the problem

Environcom has estimated that 75,000 tonnes of fridges are processed outside EA guidance. The figure is the difference between the 190,000 tonnes of fridges put on to the UK market in 2013 and the 114,000 accepted by Approved Authorised Treatment Facilities (AATFs), according to EA data.

Some caveats apply. First, it is unlikely that one tonne of fridges put on to the UK market will generate one tonne of end-of-life fridges. For example, the Association of Manufacturers of Domestic Appliances told MRW that householders often buy new fridges but keep existing ones.

The EA also pointed out the 114,000 figure does not include fridges reprocessed by legitimate operators that have not sought permission to issue WEEE evidence under the producer responsibility regime and are therefore not considered AATFs.

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