E-scrap: A vicious cycle?

By IM Staff
Published: Thursday, 15 December 2016

Every year, millions of tonnes of highly polluting electronic waste are sent to landfill, even though a high proportion of this material consists of valuable metals and minerals. Rose Pengelly, IM Correspondent, looks at how the changing makeup of electronic products poses problems and opportunities for e-scrap recycling.

Recycling waste products to reclaim their constituent minerals and metals for reuse has gained significant momentum in the last few decades. 

In Europe, increasing emphasis has been placed on "closed loop" manufacturing, the "circular economy" and "urban mining" as more muscular terms for recycling and similar initiatives are being pursued in North America. These two regions represent the largest sources of electronic scrap (e-scrap) in the world, partly because they have the most developed consumer economies for electronic products and therefore generate the most of this type of waste, but also because they have the most advanced recycling infrastructure.

The e-scrap market is regarded as a rich but largely untapped source of secondary raw materials, particularly precious, base and rare earths metals. It also has offshoots in plastics and battery recycling. A report by the United Nations University (UNU) calculated that the global amount of e-waste reached 41.8m tonnes in 2014, the highest volume ever recorded.

Federico Magalini, director at UK-based Cyrcle Consulting and an e-waste research specialist at the UNU, estimates that a completely efficient urban mining process 

for global e-scrap could be worth around €48bn ($51.4bn*) a year in recovered metals and plastics.

However, the costs of reclaiming materials from e-scrap often stack up unfavourably against procuring them from virgin sources. From a solely economic perspective, the business case for recycling materials is undermined when readily available cheap supply from primary sources outweighs demand – a situation that has dogged the rare earths industry in particular for the last few years. In general, prices need to be high and supply scarce for recycling to be profitable.

From a broader perspective, however, there are compelling reasons to pursue e-scrap recycling. Magalini argues that landfilling this type of waste damages the environment and human health, so recycling it represents a net socio-economic gain, regardless of fluctuations in market prices for metals.

Further, abundant supply of minerals from primary sources is not guaranteed forever. Tim McIntyre, programme manager within the Electrical and Electronics Research Division at US-based Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), believes that investing in ways to reclaim "critical" raw materials like rare earths from secondary sources is a wise insurance policy.

"It is never good to have a single source of anything, especially these critical materials," McIntyre told IM. In September this year, ORNL, which is funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE), signed a non-exclusive licencing agreement with electronic solutions provider Momentum Technologies for an ORNL process designed to recover rare earth magnets from used computer hard drives.

The patent-pending process, developed by the DOE’s Critical Materials Institute, is designed to economically recover large volumes of magnetic material made using neodymium— a rare earth element which, in addition to computer hard drives, is used in cell phones and clean energy technologies.

A typical e-scrapping dismantling operation: 100,000 migrant workers in Guiyu,
China, break down imported computers in hundreds of small operations
surrounding the Lianjiang River.
Source: baselactionnetwork, via Flickr 

Around 35% of the US’ used hard drives are shredded due to data security concerns and McIntyre estimates that recycling those drives could result in the recovery of about 1,000 tpa of magnet material. 

He notes that bulk recovery is key to making the practice cost-effective. "Our analyses indicate it is economically feasible, by taking a holistic approach to recycling and perhaps reuse," McIntyre told IM.

US critical mineral policy is largely driven by concerns over supply security connected with the concentrated production of some minerals in certain countries. In the case of rare earths, more than 90% of supply comes from China – a fact the US considers politically risky.

The EU has highlighted rare earths recovery as a priority in its industrial agenda for the same reason. In a February 2015 report entitled "Recovery of rare earths from electronic wastes: An opportunity for high-tech SMEs", the European Parliament’s Department for Economic and Scientific Policy stated that: "Rare earth elements are critical due to their importance in a number of applications, including a number of green technologies, but, primarily, because of the high supply risks arising from the dependence on a single source (China)".

The report concluded that shifting consumer preferences towards rare earth-containing hi-tech and green products renders "the recovery of rare earth elements from electronics scrap (…) extremely important, for both economic and environmental reasons".

Among its recommendations, the report advocated that more financial support be allocated to the development of recycling technology and that it should be mandatory for manufacturers to disclose the raw material content of their products in order to clarify their recyclable potential. It also mooted the idea of subsidising pre-processing and recycling of critical raw materials.

Improving waste collection

E-scrap recycling already exists in pockets around the world, but for efficient bulk recovery of e-scrap, industry observers say that new national and international waste collection and sorting policies need to be implemented. 

According to Pascal Leroy, secretary general of the Belgium-based Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum, the concept of "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) is vital to improving the recovery of valuable metals and minerals from e-scrap.

EPR involves incorporating the environmental cost of disposing of or recycling goods into their market price. There have been calls for the EU to legislate on this issue as waste management becomes an increasingly pressing concern. 

In North America, EPR initiatives are being led by Canada. The country first adopted the policy in 2009 and according to Tracy Shaw, CEO of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries, today there are over 90 different legislated EPR programmes operating in Canada. For e-scrap, the Canadian Electronic Products Recycling Association (EPRA) was formed in 2011 and, in 2015, a record 660,000 tonnes of end-of-life electronic products were processed. But as in Europe, there are factors that make e-scrap recycling in Canada difficult. 

Collections from remote and north Canadian communities involve high transport costs and different states and territories tend to operate independent recycling programmes, rather than a more efficient joined-up framework. 

Availability of e-scrap

Despite the various limitations on e-scrap recycling, the practice has become well-established and is profitable for many private sector companies, usually as an add-on to more traditional scrap trading. But after a decade or so of relatively healthy trading conditions, in the last few years the e-scrap market has hit a bump in the road. The transition from personal computers to tablets and mobile devices, the majority of which do not contain metal-rich hard drives, has changed the landscape of e-scrap supply.

"The market is tough at the moment and it’s hard to get hold of material," Jan-Willem Dekker, an e-scrap trader at Netherlands-based Krommenhoek Metals, told IM. He explained that in addition to the lack of hard drives in many modern devices, a significant proportion of spent products are not finding their way into waste streams at all. "It’s easier to keep an old phone or iPad in a drawer or cupboard and forget about it rather than scrap it – you couldn’t do that with the old desktops," he said.

While there may be a large amount of theoretical e-scrap supply, there are bottlenecks in the recycling system. WEEE Forum’s Leroy explains that e-scrap recycling of precious metals has been hampered by informal waste management systems that have grown up in some economies, where consumer and commercial waste is sent to municipal landfill sites where limited sorting is carried out. 

In addition, certain metals are difficult to recover because of their low concentrations in electronic products and most non-metallic minerals have their forms irrevocably changed during the manufacturing process.

The 2015 European Parliament report on rare earths recycling also recognised this and suggested that future commercial opportunities in this area primarily lie in sorting and pre-processing of WEEE streams to help maximise recoveries.

ORNL’s McIntyre however believes that there is no reason to be concerned about the availability of e-scrap. "The assertion that e-scrap supplies are drying up may be true in some areas, but for hard drives this is not the case – not anytime soon anyway."

"While it is true that the quantity of spinning disk hard drives being manufactured is declining, there is a huge installed base that is predicted to provide ample sourcing for at least two decades." 

In 2016, around 115m hard drives will enter the recycling marketplace, McIntyre states.  "As much as 65% of these will still be functional and thus will be refurbished and sold into the secondary hard drive marketplace.  More than 650m hard drives will be manufactured in 2016 and there have been upwards of seven billion hard drives produced since their onset in the early-to-mid-1980s."

McIntyre nevertheless agrees that there will be a lag before some new sources of e-scrap containing rare earth magnets become available. "Electric machines, such as direct drive wind turbines, stereo speakers, electric vehicles and power tools, utilising rare earth magnets have only recently been manufactured," he explains. "Since motors [used in wind turbines and electric vehicles] are generally designed to have an operational life span of 10-20 years, large sources for recycling are just beginning to emerge."

Battery recycling

Spent batteries are not generally considered as e-scrap, although they are important targets for recycling connected with the e-scrap market. Many of the electronic devices that make up e-scrap streams are powered by batteries, including a growing proportion of new generation lithium-ion (Li-ion) and nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) technologies. 

Owing to their reputation as a major source of toxic waste, recycling traditional lead-acid batteries is now fairly entrenched in most developed economies. In contrast, the recovery of materials from modern battery chemistries is still at a relatively early stage. 

In July this year, Japanese vehicle maker Honda Motor Co. announced plans to start collecting and recycling the Li-ion batteries used in its hybrid vehicles across Japan in order to tackle what it called "a major waste problem" for the automotive sector.

Honda intends to separate out the electrolytes from old Li-ion batteries and recover around 80% of their valuable metal content, which it will then use as raw materials to make new Ni-MH batteries and other products. The scheme is predicated on the assumption that recycling the batteries will cost less that incinerating them.

Similar projects have also been proposed by other companies and research bodies, including US-based Li-ion starter-battery maker, Shorai Inc., junior miner American Manganese Inc. and Argonne National Laboratory.

Initiatives like Honda’s fall within the broad definition of EPR, however they rely on the original manufacturer taking responsibility for recycling their own products. For a more competitive recycling industry to flourish, third party businesses need to have easy access, the economic incentive and the technology to handle, any available waste stream.

In this respect, new generation battery recycling is a few steps behind the e-scrap sector. McIntyre explains how the US Critical Materials Institute’s research into recovering rare earths from e-scrap is being shared usefully and profitably. "As a US DOE national laboratory, we are explicitly barred from competing with private industry.  Thus, we are licencing our technology to private companies who seek to produce new magnets or new products containing recovered magnets – such as motors, new hard drives and subassemblies," he told IM.

The future of e-scrap recycling

McIntyre points out that recycling is determined by policy as well as cost, which means the goalposts for e-scrap can move. "There are myriad efforts to recover many, so-called critical materials.  It always boils down to the economics, unless the scarcity of some material is deemed a national security concern."

Leroy and Shaw suggest that the vagaries of economics can be overridden, or at least influenced, by firm policies like EPR and reforms to waste management practices. McIntyre ultimately agrees, saying that better logistics and awareness of e-scrap recycling are vital to improving how the e-scrap industry operates.

"I will soon be demonstrating the capacity to recycle very large quantities of hard drives; partnering with the entrenched e-waste recycling community, or data centres directly, to bring economic means of recovering even greater value from hard drives will be our focus."

*Conversion made November 2016