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Is there a future for e-waste recycling? Yes, and it’s worth billions

A methodology to help organizations in e-waste management

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Is There a Future for E-Waste Recycling?
Photo Credit: Andrew McConnell / Panos

Atlas: Research for a better world

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

August 2015 winner (free access)

Recycling of WEEEs: An economic assessment of present and future e-waste streams
Federica Cucchiella, Idiano D’Adamo, S.C. Lenny Koh, Paolo Rosa
Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, Volume 51, November 2015, Pages. 263-272.

Read the story about the award-winning research

We all love our cell phones, tablets, and flat screen TVs. Many of us also love to replace those gadgets every couple of years with the latest and greatest new models. Around the world, 30 to 50 million tons of electronic devices are tossed away every year. That volume of e-waste is expected to increase by an impressive three to five percent per year as consumers demand more and more “smart” products. But where do all those older electronic devices end up?

Too many of those devices today end up forgotten in a desk drawer or, worse, in a landfill. But the authors of an Atlas award-winning report published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews expect this to change. They’ve now conducted an economic assessment that lays the groundwork to assist in decision-making around e-waste recycling programs designed to ensure that the valuable materials contained within electronic products will find a second life.

“This paper is a cornerstone and crucial evidence base to really inform society globally and encourage us to think about the amount of embedded value and precious materials in the electronic products that we consume on a daily basis,” said Lenny Koh of the Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre at The University of Sheffield in the U.K.

The European Union has made it a priority to work toward a circular economy, in which wastes are increasingly recognized as resources, and it’s clear that such an effort makes good sense when it comes to economics. Koh and her colleagues estimate potential revenues from recycled e-waste at more than two billion Euros in the year 2014 for the European market alone. The value associated with those recycled resources is expected to rise by the year 2020 to more than 3.5 billion Euros. Smartphones, tablets and other popular electronic products contain precious materials, including gold, copper, palladium, silver, platinum, cobalt, and more.

The researchers have developed a methodology to help organizations identify these key materials and to prioritize their investment in materials recovery based on factors including the amount of materials that are available in waste streams, their material composition, the price volatility of recovered materials, degree of purity required, and more. They’ve relied on their methodology to evaluate the potential revenues from the recovery of 14 popular e-products, including LCD and LED notebooks, TVs, computer monitors, cell phones and solar panels.

Of course, the recycling of electronic waste products also promises to reduce environmental pollution by conserving virgin resources, which are required for the manufacturing of high-tech consumer products as well as for aerospace, automotive and other industries. As the demand for these limited resources continues to rise, industry will be left with little choice but to capture recycled materials for manufacturing and to meet the demand for their new products.

While the sheer volume of waste and the challenges of managing a steady and growing stream of e-waste remain quite daunting, Koh says she is optimistic that this new framework together with market forces will push e-waste recycling efforts forward.

“We think this research will play a critical role in improving society and the world in terms of reducing waste, improving recycling, reducing reliance on natural, rare earth and precious materials, and improving resource efficiency and circular economy in key manufacturing processes where we rely on these materials,” she said. “It’s critical for everybody on this planet, including companies, government, industry, consumers, and other stakeholders, that we work together to encourage reuse, recycling and recovery of materials and to improve the circular economy so that we can be more sustainable in the way that we live and operate.”

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A conversation with Lenny Koh

We spoke with Lenny Koh from the Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre at The University of Sheffield to find out more about e-waste and the opportunities and the challenges in e-waste recycling now and into the future.

When we say e-waste streams, what are we really talking about?
E-waste refers to material wastes from electronic equipment. In this paper, we look at 14 different types of products: including LED and LCD notebooks, TVs, monitors and tablets in order to really identify the materials that can be recovered from those products once they are no longer in use. These could be precious materials, critical materials and rare earth materials.

How significant has this category of waste become?
Material wastes have become extremely significant over the past decade. Now and into the future we are seeing an increased reliance on critical materials, rare earth and precious materials. With innovation, the demand for these materials has increased, but the supply is not increasing at the same rate as the demand. There is a limited supply in the world for certain types of materials and it is crucial that industries operating in electronic equipment and other sectors look at new ways of recycling, new ways of improving material resource efficiency, and implementing the idea of circular economy in order to recover valuable waste from these products so that they can be purified and rooted back into the supply chain. New industry will be emerging to tap into this growing market, which is growing at a rate of three to five percent every year internationally. It’s not going to go away in the near future.

How much value is there in e-waste?
The value is very, very significant. Let me give you a figure that will probably shock you. The potential revenue from the recycling of e-waste is 2.15 billion Euros and it’s projected to grow significantly. By 2020, the market for recycling of e-waste will grow to 3.67 billion Euros. There is an absolutely phenomenal opportunity in this sector and a big challenge in society to think about how we are going to deal with the increased demand for electronic products and e-waste.

Was there anything that particularly surprised you along the way?
What was illuminating or surprising in this analysis is we found that gold is having the highest influence in this economy. Gold accounts for more than half of the revenue from e-waste materials. The number of gold mines available is limited and they are often in particular geographic locations where there have been political tensions. Economic uncertainty can influence the availability of gold and the demand for gold continues to increase in a lot of products we are consuming. In our research, we ranked the top 10 materials and gold comes out on top. Other top 10 materials include copper, palladium, plastic, silver and aluminum.

Many of us buy these new devices—cell phones, flat screen TVs, tablets, and so on—with little thought to where they might eventually wind up. What can consumers do to improve things?
Increasing awareness by consumers is absolutely crucial. We are promoting recycling, reuse and recovery. It’s critical that a recycling plan is put in place so we can cope given the expectation that demand from consumers will increase with technological innovation. We need infrastructure and facilities to build our capacity for e-waste recycling. Consumers can also work together collaboratively with industry to drive the agenda of circular economy. Reliance on non-renewable, virgin materials is having a major impact on climate change. There is only one planet we live on—not three at the moment. It’s crucial everyone in society plays a key role in this process and that definitely includes consumers.

What do you see as the biggest challenges when it comes to e-waste?
One of the biggest challenges we come across in dealing with e-waste and circular economy is that the design of products is increasingly sophisticated, smaller, more compact on a nanoscale. This increases the complexity in recovering precious, rare earth materials. Technological development in this area is important in order to make sure we’ll be able to deal with complicated products and nanoscale materials we have to uncover, and the recycling plants to have flexibility to cope with multi waste streams.

How optimistic are you that these waste resources will be put to good use?
We are absolutely confident that the market demand for this is there. Our research has shown the economic and financial value of doing it and the huge supply stream of waste projected going forward to 2020. With increased regulation pressure, policy change and awareness in ways to deal with waste, I think the demand for recycled e-waste will keep increasing.

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About Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews

Renewable & Sustainable Energy Reviews publishes review articles designed to bring together under one cover, current advances in the ever broadening field of renewable and sustainable energy. The coverage of the journal includes energy resources, applications and services, policy, environmental impact and sustainability.

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Further Reading

Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) from the European Commission

Solving the e-waste problem from the Step Initiative

Global partnership on waste management from the United Nations

Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre from The University of Sheffield

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