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
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
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
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
China, break down imported computers in hundreds of
surrounding the Lianjiang River.
Source: baselactionnetwork, via
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
"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