5 minutes with… Cris Stephenson, CEO, Environcom, UK

5 minutes with… Cris Stephenson, CEO, Environcom, UK

September 3, 2019
Marcia González

From fridge freezers and washing machines to kettles or styling tongs, Environcom re-uses and recycles all types of WEEE, stopping them from going into landfill and slowing down the mining of precious metals from the land. Cris Stephenson, the company’s CEO – and a speaker at this year’s E-Waste World Conference & Expo – discusses some of the challenges facing the sector

What brought you to electronics waste recycling industry? Having spent all my career in logistics – starting out after finishing at Durham University to be a lorry driver – I remained in the sector until quite recently I moved into interim work. Waste is costly to move and logistics is the art of sequencing, storing and distributing items so a logistics expert is the obvious choice to run a waste company!

Now you’re the CEO of Envirocom, what’s your brief? It’s to run the company on behalf of the shareholders and all the stakeholders of the company. Other than agriculture, recycling in the UK is the second-most dangerous industry. It is highly regulated and a young sector that has often attracted those who seek profit before responsibility. My role is to ensure every one of our employees and contractors goes home safe, that the company adheres and exceeds regulatory guidance and rules and that we run an ethically and financially sound business. I see my responsibilities as continuing beyond the company. I’m continuing to grow my network and entering into conversations with like-minded companies to ensure we unify to set the standards of e-waste recycling and use the voice of the community/sector to lobby the government and inform policy.

Other than agriculture, recycling in the UK is the second-most dangerous industry. It is highly regulated and a young sector that has often attracted those who seek profit before responsibility

Are there any exciting Environcom developments you can tell us about? Some of our projects are commercially sensitive. That said, I can reveal that from September 2019, we will be the first fridge plant operator in the UK to have a fully robotic fridge compressor dismantler. All other fridge recyclers in the UK – and virtually all in Europe – send their compressors to Pakistan where they are manually dismantled in very poor working conditions with little regard to the environmental impact.  Keeping the process in the UK ensures we reduce our carbon footprint.

Do you think e-waste goes under the radar, certainly when looking at the plastic pollution coverage? Primarily, e-waste has failed to touch the general public. We now live in a world that is hugely influenced by the public, who by dint of social media are much more widely informed. David Attenborough’s Blue Planet caught the public’s eye in the UK, social media stirred up a frenzy which was then taken up by the general media, industry and the government. It built its own momentum and became self-fulfilling. Five pence for a plastic bag that carries £20 of shopping is not significant enough to explain the massive drop – it is the fact it is seen as socially unacceptable, just like drink driving or smoking. E-waste has not achieved anything like this attention and it won’t do unless we see a whale swallowing an Apple iPhone, for example.

Envirocom is the UK’s leading independent recycler of WEEE, so you’re in a great position to discuss the biggest challenges the sector is facing. We continue to exist in a society of ‘buy to replace and upgrade’ rather than ‘fix or make do’. Technology is advancing so products are becoming better and cheaper to make so the market for e-waste will continue to grow. Enforcement of e-waste recycling is essential if this growth is to be managed effectively with consideration to the environmental impact. There are no incentives or negative social impact implications for the public to ensure their e-waste is managed appropriately.

The risk versus reward is heavily in favor of the illegal operator. The first law of waste dynamics is that ‘waste goes down the cheapest hole’

Should the legislation be more stringent then? Certainly, within the UK, the problem is not legislation but the enforcement, or rather lack of it. The risk versus reward is heavily in favor of the illegal operator. The first law of waste dynamics is that ‘waste goes down the cheapest hole’. If enforcement is virtually non-existent and the waste holders are naturally looking for the cheapest solution to their waste, then legitimate operators are at a huge disadvantage to those who simply disregard the law.

So which countries are getting it spot on? I’m not sure I’m in a position to speculate, although Ireland and France seem to have a better system overall. I believe that the UK system of government intervention in setting annual targets and a quasi-market-driven solution merely pushes prices down and restricts any investment. A much longer-term view must be taken, which allows legitimate operators to invest in new technology. This is, after all, a capitally intensive industry and promoting short-termism is counterproductive to the goal of properly recycling e waste.

So, you think the UK is at a bit of a crossroads then? The whole system in the UK needs fundamentally changing so that serious investment can be made and that the curse of rogue operators is eradicated. But e-waste has not impacted on the public’s psyche and therefore not on the government’s, so until this happens, I suspect nothing much will change, hence it will remain the ‘Cinderella’ of the waste industry.

What do you hope delegates will take away from your E-Waste World Conference presentation? I hope they will join me at the event and that we can actively work together and collectively we can bring about the change that is needed.

Cris Stephenson will be part of a panel discussion at E-Waste World Conference & Expo focusing on technologies and strategies to maximize the profitability of your WEEE processing operations. The conference will take place from Thursday 14 November to Friday 15 November at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Germany. To register for this highly focused, solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email peter@trans-globalevents.com

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