WEEE plastic recycling

Shedding some light on recent developments

Plastics account on average for 25% of WEEE by weight. Their recycling contributes significantly to the environmental benefits of WEEE recycling and is often necessary to meet recycling targets. However, the WEEE plastics recycling industry is facing difficult market conditions and challenging regulatory developments.

The benefits of WEEE plastics recycling

Significant carbon savings can be achieved by recycling plastics from WEEE. A recent LCA study by dss+, conducted for a European WEEE plastics recycling company, show that for every tonne of plastics recycled from WEEE that replaces virgin equivalents, the emission of 1.5 to 4 tonnes CO2eq can be avoided (depending on the polymer, see Figure 1). Extrapolating this figure to the Swiss context suggests that recycling plastics from Swiss WEEE would enable carbon savings of around 45,000 tonnes CO2eq. By comparison, figures from the 2023 Technical Report indicate that the recycling of steel from Swiss WEEE enables carbon savings of around 30,000 tonnes CO2eq.

In addition to providing significant environmental benefits, the recycling of plastics from WEEE is a key factor in achieving circularity in the electronics sector. For most WEEE categories, plastic recycling is necessary to meet WEEE recycling targets, a fact that is reinforced by the observed substitution of metals with plastics in many components.

The types of plastics used in electrical and electronic equipment are very different from those used, for example, in packaging. In electrical and electronic equipment, we find mainly high-grade technical plastics that can be recycled into high-grade recyclates. These recyclates can be reused in EEE or other demanding applications.

There are more than 40 specialist WEEE plastics recycling companies in Europe, but none in Switzerland due to low volumes. This means that all WEEE plastics from Switzerland have to be exported in order to be recycled. However, LCA studies indicate that the impact of transport is marginal (about 1% of overall emissions linked to recycling process assuming 250 km of transportation to the recycling plant)1.

1 https://www.mgg-recycling.com/wp-content/uploads/LCA-MBA-Polymers-Austria.pdf

Challenges facing WEEE plastics recycling

Despite the many benefits mentioned above, the WEEE plastics industry currently faces a number of challenges.

Firstly, WEEE plastics recyclers report that demand for recycled plastics has decreased in 2023, which has also led to a decrease in recyclates prices. This, combined with high energy prices, has had a negative impact on the profitability of WEEE plastics recycling.

Secondly, these companies only receive a fraction of the total potential: only 0.4 million tonnes out of the total 2.6 million tonnes of WEEE plastics generated each year in Europe (Figure 2). Two main factors explain this large gap: firstly, only about half of all WEEE generated in Europe is separately collected through take-back schemes; and secondly, when WEEE does get collected and sent to pre-treatment facilities, plastic fractions often end up sent for incineration (or even landfilling) or exported outside of Europe for low-cost recycling, which entails significant health and environmental risks.

Last but not least, the European WEEE plastics industry is very concerned about a recent proposal from the European Commission’s ‘POP Expert Group’ regarding the Unintentional Trace Contamination (UTC) level for polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)2 in mixtures or articles3. This limit is currently set at 500 ppm (0.05%), which means that recycled plastics must contain less than 500 ppm in order to be placed on the market. This is already a very low limit, given that PBDEs have been used in concentrations of up to 200,000 ppm (20%) in the past, but it can be achieved by recyclers who are able to remove brominated plastics using techniques based on density. There are now two approaches proposed by the POP Expert Group to further reduce this limit:

  • An ‘Approach aiming at creating a PBDE-free market for consumer products’, which proposes a limit of 10 ppm for ‘products that may be used by the general public’, a very broad category of products. This approach would drastically reduce the market for recycled plastics from WEEE.
  • An ‘Approach taking into account recycling’, which proposes a reduction to 350 ppm in 2026 and 200 ppm in 2028 for recyclates. This approach also proposes a specific limit for mixtures and articles made from PBDE-containing recyclates: 250 ppm on adoption, 175 ppm from 2026 and 100 ppm from 2028. This proposal therefore imposes a maximum recycled content of 50%, although there are many examples of products with 100% recycled plastic content.

The recycling industry advocates keeping the 500 ppm limit until 2030, then reducing it to 200 ppm. This approach, they argue, would provide a clear timeframe that would allow for investment to upgrade and expand the current recycling infrastructure, while ensuring the proper management and destruction of PBDEs present in incoming WEEE plastic streams.


The debate over the ‘right’ limit for PBDEs in WEEE plastics has been going on for many years and illustrates a key dilemma between the pursuit of a low-carbon, circular economy and ensuring that toxic substances are phased out. Long product lifetimes and technical challenges in waste sorting mean that even after a substance is banned, its residual presence in recycled materials is inevitable. The act of setting the right threshold is inherently political, but should be science-based to minimise environmental and health risks while maximising the environmental benefits of recycling.

2 Type of brominated flame retardants used since the 1970s to meet fire safety requirements in electrical and electronic equipment, whose use has been declining since the early 2000s due to concerns over and restrictions caused by their persistence, bioaccumulative potential and toxicity. Global production peaked in 2003 and reached 0 in 2019 (https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acs.est.8b07032).
3 https://euric-aisbl.eu/images/Press-releases/Statements/JOINTstatementpops.PDF