Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


10 tonnes of e-waste an hour at SWEEEP (Dec12)

The huge grabber hand plunged into the pile of e-waste waiting below. You could see irons, toasters, kettles, hairdryers – all sorts of household electrical detritus on its way to oblivion.  Or perhaps I should say reincarnation.  Almost all of it is recycled in one form or another.

The sorting process separates as much of the wires, plastics, copper and other metals as possible – much of this is done by hand – and recycles it.  This accounts for about 70% of what goes into the system. Most of what’s left is shredded into small bits and jumbled together, which means that they get less value from the recycling process.

One of the most surprising things we were told by Justin Greenaway, who showed us round, SWEEEP’s plant, was that waste plastic was now worth more than metals!  As the price of oil increases, so too does the price of plastic.  Recycled plastic is used in place of virgin materials in many household products, without any consumer communication about it.

I was particularly interested to see the new furnace that had only been up and running at SWEEEP for a few weeks.   It’s the only facility of its kind for separating glass from lead in CRT (Cathode Ray Tubes) TVs.  SWEEEP receives 4,000 TVs a day – and even more TV glass.  Some of this is actually imported from the other side of the world for disposal.

Old style TVs – the CRT types – are a real waste problem.  The value from the raw materials they contain is far outweighed by the cost of disposal.  And the biggest problem is the lead contained in the glass.  If it’s not disposed of properly, it will leave a toxic legacy.  Once the lead has been extracted – and sent off for recycling into batteries – the remaining glass can be made into other things, like glass balls.  These didn’t sound very appealing – even as a Christmas present for someone who has everything!

I’d like to see more electrical waste re-used – and that’s not what SWEEEP do.  However, less than a third of what we throw away is actually recycled – and even less than that is actually recycled efficiently.  That is what SWEEEP do!   So I think we need more companies like this – and I suspect that after Christmas the grabber will be working over-time.


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