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Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags can be used to ensure that waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) is correctly processed, and that reuse of components and recycling of materials is maximised, according to a European Union funded project with pilot initiatives in the Czech Republic and Spain.
The WEEE TRACE project has so far applied its waste management techniques to nearly 1,000 tons of WEEE (as of March 2013), including old fridges, washing machines and other appliances. By 'managed', the project means that the waste has been conveyed to the appropriate treatment plants and that the use of RFID tags has prevented illegal exports or substandard treatment of the WEEE.
The project has been established to assist WEEE collection systems that have been set up in EU countries in conformity with the EU WEEE Directive (2012/19/EU). The directive requires EU countries to collect by 2019 up to 85% of the WEEE they generate annually. This will be equivalent to about 10 million tons of WEEE each year, or roughly 20 kilogrammes per person, according to the European Commission. Much work remains to be done: the collection rate in the Czech Republic in 2010 was 5kg per capita, and in Spain 3.2kg per capita.
The systems for WEEE return, collection, reuse and recycling have been established by producers and retailers of electrical and electronic goods. Enrique Redondo of Ecolec, Spain's largest WEEE compliance scheme, says that it is in the interests of producers and retailers to make such schemes a cost-efficient as possible. Generally, the collection schemes do not generate profits, though that could come in the future as markets for recycled materials develop.
Ecolec is a partner in WEEE TRACE. Through the project, it is installing equipment for better tracking of WEEE at an existing waste management facility. As well as RFID tags, the project is using other technologies that can help keep track of WEEE, such as image capturing and geo-positioning. The objective is to comprehensively keep track of waste appliances to ensure that valuable raw materials are recovered and that WEEE does not 'leak' from the system and unnecessarily end up in landfill sites.
In the Czech Republic, project partner ASEKOL is a non-profit WEEE collection scheme, similar to Ecolec, which has been set up by retailers. It operates 14,000 collection sites, including shops and municipal facilities, and collects 1,100 tons of WEEE per month. For ASEKOL, better tracking of WEEE as implemented by WEEE TRACE means that it can identify and separate WEEE appliances by type for optimal treatment, including recycling into secondary raw materials.
The project is not yet finished, but its expected results are an increase in the amount of WEEE collected and properly treated by 52,000 tons per year, avoided emissions of about 60,000 tons of CO2 equivalent per year because of the correct processing of waste gases from old fridges, and reduced WEEE treatment costs because of better organisation of the waste management process. Redondo says that savings so far compared to the previous WEEE system have been about 10 percent per unit processed.
The project expects that it can be replicated throughout the EU, because most European countries operate similar WEEE collection systems as a consequence of the implementation of the WEEE Directive. This “could promote the European recycling market,” says Redondo, though national standards might have to be further aligned. The project could even spread internationally, with a WEEE collection service in Brazil showing interest.