End-of-life circuit boards, certain magnets in disc drives and electric vehicles and other special battery types, also fluorescent lamps are among several electrical and electronic products containing critical raw materials (CRMs), the recycling of which should be made mandatory by law, says a new UN-backed report funded by the EU.
A mandatory, legal requirement to recycle and reuse CRMs in select e-waste categories is needed to safeguard from supply disruptions elements essential to manufacturers of important electrical and electronic and other products, says a European consortium behind the report, led by the Switzerland-based World Resources Forum.
The CEWASTE consortium warns that access to the CRMs in these products is vulnerable to geo-political tides. Recycling and reusing them is “crucial” to secure ongoing supplies for regional manufacturing of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) essential for defence, renewable energy generation, LEDs and other green technologies, and to the competitiveness of European firms.
Today, recycling most of the products rich in CRMs is not commercially viable, with low and volatile CRM prices undermining efforts to improve European CRM recycling rates, which today are close to zero in most cases.
The report identifies gaps in standards and proposes an improved, fully tested certification scheme to collect, transport, process and recycle this waste, including tools to audit compliance.
“A European Union legal framework and certification scheme, coupled with broad financial measures will foster the investments needed to make recycling critical raw materials more commercially viable and Europe less reliant on outside supply sources,” says the consortium.
“Acceptance by the manufacturing and recycling industry is also needed, as the standards will only work when there is widespread adoption.”
The report follows the 2020 EU action plan to make Europe less dependent on third countries for CRMs by, for example, diversifying supply from both primary and secondary sources while improving resource efficiency and circularity.
Adds the consortium: “By adopting this report’s recommendations, the EU can be more self-sustaining, help drive the world’s green agenda and create new business opportunities at home.”
The project says the equipment categories that contain CRMs in concentrations high enough to facilitate recycling include printed circuit boards from IT equipment, hard disc drives and optical disc drives.
Batteries from WEEE and end-of-life vehicles, neodymium iron boron magnets from hard disc drives, and electrical engines of e-bikes, fluorescent powders from cathode ray tubes (CRTs; in TVs and monitors) and fluorescent lamps and recovery technologies and processes are well established for some CRMs, such as palladium from printed circuit boards or cobalt from lithium-ion batteries.
For other CRMs, ongoing recycling technology development will soon make industrial scale operations possible but needs financial support and sufficient volumes to achieve cost-efficient operations.
Of 60 plus requirements in European e-waste-related legislation and standards, few address the collection of CRMs in the key product categories, the consortium found.
They propose several additional technical, managerial, environmental, social and traceability requirements for facilities that collect, transport, and treat waste, for integration into established standards, such as the EU 50625-series.
The overall scheme was tested at European firms in Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, as well as in Colombia, Rwanda and Turkey.
“Greater CRM recycling is a society-wide responsibility and challenge,” says the consortium. “The relevant authorities must improve the economic framework conditions to make it economically viable.”