Machine recycling - time to take responsibility

26th of September 2013
Machine recycling - time to take responsibility

A new European company which claims to offer a solution to the dilemma of how to dispose of used cleaning machines was launched in the Netherlands last year. ECJ speaks to Frank Smit, director of European Cleaning Machines Recycling (ECMR) about how it is now expanding its geographical reach.

Have you ever considered what happens to scrubber dryers or vacuum cleaners once they have reached the end of their useful life in the cleaning sector? Are they disposed of responsibly? Can their components be recycled?

The answer is that despite the introduction of so many regulations concerning the safe disposal of electrical equipment, there is no uniform system for dealing with professional cleaning machines. And the industry has no clear philosophy regarding Cradle to Cradle.

Owner of Van der Reest Holding Johan Van der Reest observed this through his own experience at his cleaning machine distributorship VDR Machines and cleaning company VDR Cleaning. So in June 2012 European Cleaning Machines Recycling (ECMR) was founded, which aims to provide a responsible solution to the disposal of used cleaning machines.

As company director Frank Smit explains, ECMR seeks to offer a sustainable and transparent recycling solution that closes the recycling circle of machines and equipment in our industry. It can work with vacuum cleaners, high pressure cleaners, scrubber dryers, sweepers and street sweepers.

“Until recently machines being returned to manufacturers had a value. Some could be refurbished, while others were good for obtaining spare parts. In 2005 50 per cent of machines being returned at the end of their life were of AB quality, 30 per cent were CD quality and scrap accounted for just 20 per cent.

“We noticed the number of machines being received by manufacturers at the end of their useful life as practically rubbish was rising significantly. This is because cleaning companies are keeping them in use for longer in the current difficult economic climate, they are not buying machines so regularly. We predict by 2015 the percentage of AB quality machines being returned will be just 15 per cent, CD quality 15 per cent and scrap will account for 70 per cent.”

For the equipment manufacturers this trend presents it own challenges, in having to collect and take responsibility for the disposal of machines. Alternatively, they are being taken away for scrap. “But what is happening to that waste when it is taken away via less official channels?” asks Smit. “The registration of materials is not clear, so waste could end up in China or Africa, for example, where it disappears.

“If those materials are kept in Europe they can be recycled and reused. Advanced technology exists for recycling plastic, for example, as well as other materials.”

Manufacturer partners

This is where ECMR comes in. The company is working on setting up partnerships with manufacturer and large distributor sites around Europe where it can station one of its green containers. In the container are different crates for placing plastics, metal parts, batteries, etc. The frequency of collection by an ECMR branded truck varies, from every few weeks to two or three times a week – depending on how quickly it is filled.

When the container full of machines arrives back at ECMR’s premises in the Netherlands it is first registered and the serial number checked. “This is a most important element of our service,” explains Smit, “the documentation and transparency of all stages.” The battery is removed and the tanks emptied of water and fuel if it has not already been done.

The ECMR engineers then take the machines apart with materials being separated into different bins: plastics, steel, copper, aluminium, iron, batteries, electric motors, engines, etc. Those materials are then sold on to certified processors for recycling in accordance with environmental legislation. This is how the business generates revenue.

Smit’s vision for the future is that ECMR could have its own plastics recycling facility, which could eventually enable manufacturers to have their own plastic back after it has been recycled from their own machines – closing the recycling loop and guaranteeing total control and quality.

At all stages of the process ECMR’s partners can view online reports and monitor exactly what is happening to the materials in each machine – reporting is a vital aspect of the service.

Smit points out that ECMR also has a policy to employ people who have some ‘labour limitations’. “We feel it is very important to offer opportunities to those who may find it hard to get a job.”

He goes on to explain some of the difficulties facing the company. “We are at the very end of the chain so some of the machines that come back to us have many of the most valuable parts missing because they have a scrap value. So we do ask batteries for example be left on the machines so that we can cover our costs.

“At the moment this is vital for us, however we anticipate that our volumes will increase and the situation will improve. Then we will be in a position to offer specific separation of plastics, for example, which have a higher value.”

The target for ECMR is to recycle 2,000 machines a year. “The challenge for our partner companies is logistically getting all the machines back to their premises because it is not always realistic or feasible. He acknowledges there may be logistical hurdles to overcome in rolling out the service across Europe. Once again, volume is the key to success.

“The big cost for us is transportation, but if the valuable materials are left on the cleaning machines we could be flexible on transportation costs for example,” Smit continues. “And that’s the main fee to our partners, transportation. It also depends on having full trucks because it is difficult to justify a trip to Portugal to collect just two machines – both economically and environmentally.”

Geographical reach

So currently the target geographical reach is within a 750 km radius of the ECMR premises. “Perhaps we could reach a stage where some of our partners could offer local recycling,” suggests Smit.

The ECMR programme already has the support of a number of well known manufacturers and distributors based in the Benelux region – among them Nilfisk, Fimap, Numatic, Ecolab, Hako, Boma, Tennant, Cleanfix and Kärcher. ECJ spoke to a number of them to find out how they view the idea.

“The solution that ECMR is offering matches what the market of cleaning equipment needs,” said Jean Paul Christy, sales director professional at Kärcher in the Netherlands. “It is an independent organisation that can bring the way we recycle to a higher level without the involvement of any government. This may also be the difficulty in getting the business off the ground – there will not be any subsidies. Therefore manufacturers and distributors should support this initiative as much as they can.”

Christy went on: “The service from ECMR fits perfectly with the way we work and fits into our quality system and assurance. The most important argument is that we offer our customers a secure way to dispose of the machine that also fits in their sustainability programmes.

“The key benefit is we are reducing our impact on the environment and getting closer to a Cradle to Cradle situation.”

Christy agrees the main challenge will be achieving critical mass. “This means all stakeholders must realise what an opportunity we have as a market and finally show the professionalism and knowledge we claim to have.”

Logistical challenge

Nilfisk-Advance is also supporting the ECMR model, as Patrick Bruin, marketing manager for Benelux explained. “From both a CSR and business point of view, recycling cleaning machines is the right thing to do. We see a number of benefits in using the ECMR service however one of the main challenges we see will be in the organisation and logistics.”

Bruin emphasised Nilfisk-Advance is already active in the recycling of its machines and is also encouraging its distributors to take part.

Boma is a large Benelux distributor for companies including Ecover, Van Houtum and Nilfisk. Its marketing director Stijn Wildiers told ECJ it already returns used and written-off Nilfisk machines to its premises in order to have them collected by a recognised collector. “This solution by ECMR goes further because its approach guarantees the machines will be completely recycled,” he said.

“And certification makes it possible to prove our efforts. This new concept will help us achieve our targets of reducing waste from products to zero.”

“I do hope the business model can cope with the fluctuation in the prices of raw materials and that ECMR will manage to make a healthy business from an environmentally driven initiative.”

ECMR is offering a solution, then, that takes materials out of the system and puts raw materials back into the system – or waste management as it could be described. “At the moment the cleaning industry as a whole is not sufficiently aware of the concept of using recyclable materials in their manufacturing processes,” says Smit. “Cleaning machines need to be designed more with take-back in mind – reuse of materials and recycling.”

It must be remembered, however, there is currently no actual law stipulating that cleaning machines must be recycled at all. There is no legislative obligation on end users or on manufacturers so ECMR is relying on their goodwill and individual CSR/recycling policies.

And its ambitions go beyond the current pick-up and recycling operation, as Smit concludes. “We would like to become a platform for knowledge about recycling technology. The industry as a whole must explore the development and use of more recyclable materials for example. This is a responsibility we must all share, and as ECMR we are keen to play our part.”


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