Q&A with Mr. Peter Sabbe, CEO, Recupel Belgium, on their leading effort to tackle electronic waste

Q. Tell us about the transformational projects Recupel is doing on the sustainability front – especially those action-points that can be useful learning for India & South Asian countries? 

A. Thanks to Recupel, the reuse sector is in full development, both in terms of job creation and in terms of the increasing number of electro-repaired appliances that are given a second life. Reuse is an active part in the circular and social economy and represents the first step in reducing waste. This preparation for the reuse of electrical equipment is perfectly in line with our philosophy and contributes to our commitment to the circular economy through the optimal recovery of used electrical and electronic equipment materials. A device that is considered reusable is prepared for reuse according to strict criteria pre-established by Recupel.

When we dismantle electrical appliances, we give as much priority as possible to the social economy (in line with the current market). This means people from risk groups such as older or low-skilled workers.

Regarding depollution, Recupel ensures that used equipment is collected, recycled and depolluted efficiently. Depollution means that harmful substances are separated and eliminated according to BATNEC (Best Available Technology Not Entailing Excessive Cost). Recupel removes nearly 1500 tons of hazardous components from our environment every year.  For example, the mercury coming from our bulbs and fluorescent lamps is carefully collected and extracted during processing.

Furthermore, Recupel is a leading member of WEEE Forum that covers the main European producer responsibility organisations (P.R.O.’s). To bring more transparency and homogeneity to the sector throughout Europe, the members of the WEEE Forum have just adopted a set of internal standards grouped under the acronym WEEELABEX (WEEE LABel of EXcellence). These standards cover the collection, depollution and recycling of waste (http://www.weee-forum.org/weeelabexproject). 

Q. Tell us a bit about the process being undertaken by Recupel to recycle plastic waste. What were the main challenges it faces?

A. Every recycler that cooperates with Recupel is committed to specific targets that have to be achieved. For plastics, the minimum targets are 50% for recycling and 80% for useful application. In this way, a minimum quality treatment of plastic is guaranteed.

The biggest challenge on recycling plastic waste, in the past, was to convince the industry that plastics have a value as well. Initially, the focus for material recuperations was mainly on the maximum recycling of metal. However, without the recycling of plastics, the recycling targets could not be achieved. Step by step the industry started realising that plastics can be a valuable material as well.

The next challenge lies within the treatment of plastics with brominated flame retardants. The use and recycling of these plastics is highly regulated. If this type of plastics cannot be recycled, then it can be difficult for certain products to achieve the recycling targets. Therefore, the challenge is to find a process to be able to eliminate / separate these fire retardants from plastics.

Q. Is there any opportunity you envisage for partnerships with Indian companies on this front? If so, tell us which are the areas wherein Indian firms and Recupel can be of mutual benefit to each other? How do you think Recupel’s engagement in South Asia be deepened further?

A. Recupel is always open to share, at any time, its knowledge, experience and best practises with other stakeholders or countries where for instance P.R.O.’s have not yet been established in a general way. To take an example of Recupel’s participation in the Indian sustainability area, is the presence of Recupel as an international speaker on the World Environment Day in New Delhi earlier this year, where best practises were shared with the audience. We are also open to receive international delegations and show them our way of operating in the field.

Q. Triple bottomline is picking up acceptance. What is your advice to other innovators so that they are able to develop more workable solutions that achieve triple bottomline? 

A. Nowadays it is becoming more and more standard not only to take into account the financial profit, but also to take into account the people and the planet. Why would a company not take the triple bottom line into account, to the extend possible? If you think in the long term and not only in the short term, then the triple bottom line is absolutely something to take into account.

So always keep triple bottom line in mind when looking for solutions and make it public to all your stakeholders that your organisation is very committed to this principle. It contributes to the credibility of your company. 

Q. What efforts should be done to deepen the acceptability amongst the business community about the EPR challenge? EU states like Belgium practice self-restraint, but the mind-set of Indian companies is far from self-restraint. What is your view on how best to tackle this?

A. In a country such as Belgium, it is true that producers mainly voluntarily comply with the extended producer responsibility; they are aware that this is an obligation that must be met. 

This is partially because Recupel invests a lot in the field of awareness raising. Nonetheless, there is a legislative framework in which it is clearly stated what the obligations of the producers are regarding EPR. 

So, a legislative framework seems necessary to get (initially) the stakeholders involved on board, but this has to be combined with awareness raising and enforcement. Both are important to avoid and/or tackle free riders and to create a level playing field.

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