Tour de Force

Eco-Systèmes’ orchestrated network of WEEE collection and treatment centers throughout France is getting electronics recycling down to a science.

June 27, 2013
Lisa McKenna

The recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) throughout Europe has taken on different forms since the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, implemented in 2005, and then its recast, WEEE-II, finalized in July of 2012.

Under the directive and its revision, producers of equipment sold throughout Europe are responsible for its collection and recycling. Those processes are handled in a variety of ways across the 27 member states of the European Union.

But the take-back organisation Eco-Systèmes, based in Paris is helping to interpret the European directive in France and beyond, as one of the groups at the forefront of an effort to create international standards for the proper depollution and recycling of the various categories of WEEE.

Since the recast, efforts to standardize how WEEE is recycled throughout Europe have been spearheaded by the WEEE Forum, an association of 39 producer responsibility organisations throughout Europe that are run on behalf of manufacturers and retailers to handle the take-back systems. A key member of that group is Eco-Systèmes, the authorized producer compliance scheme for France.

Founded in 2005, Eco-Systèmes is a private, nonprofit and government-authorized organisation responsible for managing the collection, depollution and recycling of France’s electrical equipment at end of life. The organisation itself was created by 35 producers and retailers of electrical and electronic equipment. Some of the better-known names in this group include Samsung, Miele, Philips and BSH. The company has to be recertified by the French government every five years, says Richard Toffolet, its technical director, in what is a complex process with numerous stakeholders.

“It’s something very strange,” he says, explaining, “We are a private company, but we run a public service.”

Eco-Systèmes accomplishes its missions through a network of contracted collection, logistics and treatment partners. And to make sure WEEE is treated properly, the organisation has developed specific procedures for each of the four streams of waste it handles.

An Impressive Track Record

Toffolet says the organisation collected 334,000 tonnes of WEEE in 2012, the equivalent of about 40 million appliances, or about 7 kilograms per inhabitant.

Because Eco-Systèmes is a government-authorized organisation, it has to follow a number of specifications, explaining the targets it must reach and how it will reach them, along with specific recycling targets for the materials its contractors handle. It is also following specific treatment standards set by the WEEE Forum.

According to Toffolet, about 11,500 collection points currently are located throughout France and its territories, including its islands in the Caribbean, Indian and Pacific Oceans. In addition, Eco-Systèmes works with 93 logistics centers, about one in each of the country’s 95 district areas. Using an optimization tool, collected WEEE is sent to the most economically appropriate processing facility.

WEEE collected in France’s overseas departments and territories, including the islands of Reunion, French Guiana and Mayotte, also are handled by Eco-Systèmes’ network of providers, though Toffolet concedes that depending the location of the WEEE, for example the islands located in the Indian Ocean, transshipment costs can make the handling and collection of a refrigerator, for example, more costly than a new appliance itself.

One of the most important facets of the directive, and of Eco-Systèmes’ treatment methods, is the removal and proper handling of the substances of concern present in WEEE. And all of the 72 contracted treatment facilities authorized by Eco-Systèmes have to follow these methods.

Because the take-back scheme is relatively new, most of its facilities are as well, having recently purchased equipment especially designed to handle the material streams and the substances of concern. Toffolet says that the contracted processors have invested around 150 million euros since 2006, when processing operations officially began, in the various technologies to treat WEEE.

“We had to convince the operators to invest and build those facilities,” says Toffolet. “We did it through contracts and warranties for operators to get such volumes and have the right return on investment to perform the operations.”

The company handles four different material streams and has specific recycling and recovery targets to meet in each. Lamps are not covered under the organisation’s hierarchy but are handled under another collection and processing system in France.

Cooling and Freezing Appliances. Because these appliances contain greenhouse gases, Toffolet says, their treatment is performed in specific facilities where the appliances are shredded in a controlled atmosphere. Last year Eco-Systèmes collected 64,000 tonnes of cooling and freezing appliances that were treated in the nine or 10 such facilities in France.

Large Household Appliances. This category entails mainly dishwashers, clothes washers and other white goods excluding freezing and cooling appliances.

“They could contain some pollutants, so we have to go through a first step of depollution.” Here, he says, capacitors and printed circuit boards are the main items of concern listed in the directive. Once depolluted, the appliances are shredded and then the various material streams are sorted and separated.

Screens. This category includes cathode ray tubes (CRTs), such as television screens and computer monitors. Again, the process begins with depollution. For CRTs, Toffolet says, the process is done mostly by hand to remove and separate the leaded and nonleaded glass. Phosphor powders, also listed as substances of concern, are removed, as are batteries, capacitors and printed circuit boards.

The newer flat panel displays (FPDs), while still comprising a small proportion of the WEEE received in this category, says Toffolet, also must go through a depollution process. “The main focus is on the mercury-back lights,” he says. These lights contain mercury as well as phosphor powder, he says, and have to be removed and sent to a facility capable of treating mercury.

Toffolet says the organisation is also currently investing in research and development projects for innovative processing technologies for FPDs. These deal with the safe removal of mercury, as well as with the recycling of strategic metals in FPDs, such as rare earth elements, indium and liquid crystals. A very small amount of each of these is in each FPD, Toffolet says. Even so, he adds, “they are very valuable substances, and so it makes sense to try and recover them.”

Toffolet says in 2012, Eco-Systèmes collected 71,000 tonnes of screens, of which about 4,000 were flat panel displays. But, he notes, the volume of CRTs in the waste stream is decreasing very quickly.

Small household appliances. All other small appliances, such as toasters, hair dryers and computers, are also depolluted and recycled. One of the main concerns, says Toffolet, is the high amount of brominated flame retardants these appliances contain. “We have to remove the brominated flame retardants from the plastics to be able to recover the plastic,” says Toffolet. After depollution, the remaining plastics are sorted by polymer for recycling.

Support Structure
While Eco-Systèmes manages the national collection and processing network, it also collects fees from the producers of electronics to cover the cost of its processors’ operations and help fund those capital investments.

“We give some financing, we give some long-term contracts, we guarantee some volumes from the investors to run the facility,” Toffolet says.

Each provider selected by Eco-Systèmes is chosen after a regulated bid process, or “an open call for tenders.” As such, Toffolet says, choosing each provider involves a complex and detailed procedure. “I think we have some 300 or 400 criteria,” he says.

He says there are a range of various facility types throughout the network, some that handle depollution, others that handle shredding and still others to handle sorting of metals and plastics or the recovery of precious metals. Some of the materials will go through a few of these facilities in succession as part of the recovery process. “Sometimes it’s three or four or five facilities that work one after the other in different areas,” he says.

Traceability of the material streams is eventually lost for recyclable commodities that don’t pose a concern, such as mixed metals. However Eco-Systèmes keeps close tabs on any streams that contain substances of concern, as identified by the directive. “We have a traceability process that enables us to follow the main substances,” Toffolet says. Printed circuit boards, for example, are traced all the way to their destination at a facility capable of recovering the precious metals and also able to handle the dangerous waste materials involved.

Eco-Systèmes, as a member of the WEEE Forum, also is working to transform its specific treatment protocols into international standards, an ongoing process that has evolved over the years. The company originally wrote its own specifications some years ago as part of its regulated bid process. Then, as a member of the WEEE Forum, Eco-Systèmes began participating in a project to write and approve international standards for CENELEC, the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization. “We will go through a vote by the end of the year,” he says. “We could have the first norm by the end of the year.”

At the same time the company is also helping to write standards pertaining to collections, logistics and treatment procedures for specific appliances or material streams, particularly cooling and freezing appliances, CRT screens and flat panel displays, as well as how to measure depollution efficiency.

Toffolet says the costs of WEEE recycling are paid for by producers of electronic equipment and appliances, which have to pay a fee on every unit sold. However in France this fee is typically passed along to consumers, as it is added to the purchase price and shown clearly on the price tag. The fee for a new refrigerator, Toffolet explains, is around 13 euros.

Eco-Systèmes measures its operational success by how well it reaches its quotas for both recycling and recovery, two categories it is charged to provide. “We have to guarantee to producers some recycling and recovery quotas,” Toffolet says. To measure these, says Toffolet, each facility is audited once each year by running representative batches of material.

As for the future, Toffolet says the organisation hopes to double its collection of WEEE from the current level of 7 kilograms per inhabitant over the next six years. “It’s a very ambitious project,” he says.

Even so, the company seems well positioned to do that. “We try to do things the right way,” he says, observing there are a few things Eco-Systèmes tries to do differently than other take-back schemes.

“First, we try work with all of the stakeholders,” he says, naming such diverse groups as government, producers, operators, retailers, social welfare groups and politicians. “We work with everybody and try to find an win-win solution.”

So far the company has done just that. In the most recent recertification process, Toffolet notes, Eco-Systèmes was unanimously kept on the job. “This is what we like to do, and something I think that is very specific to Eco-Systèmes.”

The author is managing editor of Recycling Today Global Edition and can be contacted at