WEEE are the champions

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:

As the value of waste electrical and electronic equipment becomes widely recognised, more effort is being expended to make the extraction of this value profitable for recyclers and reprocessors – alongside initiatives to reduce waste in the first place such as repairability scheme the Restart Project. Maxine Perella reports

It is somewhat ironic to note that one of the fastest-growing waste streams in the EU – waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) – also offers potentially some of the highest value in terms of secondary materials capture. But capturing this value in a cost-effective way has proved very challenging thus far.

Last year the independent think-tank Green Alliance published a report, Wasted opportunities: Smarter systems for resource recovery, which suggested that the UK could support eight to 16 generalist WEEE recyclers recovering raw material, as well as 50 to 200 reuse-focused reprocessors specialising in particular appliance types.

The generalist recyclers would not shred WEEE by default, but rather assess items for reuse potential and separate out those which are suited to reuse or disassembly in order to maximise their recycling value. According to the Green Alliance’s analysis, such an approach could capture £500 million more per year from the e-waste stream.

The report states that one of the biggest barriers to realising the value in discarded electronics is the current system’s inability to organise careful collection and delivery to a facility that can effectively separate high-value reusable or repairable products from those that must be recycled. But a promising initiative may help in this respect – the Critical Raw Material Closed Loop Recovery project.

This €2.1 million EU LIFE-funded scheme, announced in October, is being led by WRAP in partnership with the KTN, Wuppertal Institute, European Recycling Platform (ERP) UK and the European Advanced Recycling Network (EARN).

It will explore commercial opportunities for harvesting critical raw materials and precious metals from discarded e-products – and will be the first of its type to link WEEE collection methods with recovery success.

According to WRAP’s Lucy Cooper, who is the technical lead for the project, a key aim of the project will be to understand to what extent existing collection techniques (such as kerbside, and postal returns) and recovery technologies can be enhanced in order to capture greater amounts of high-value materials. “It’s really about asking how we can enhance the processes we already use and reduce the losses that we are seeing,” she says.

Target critical raw materials for recovery include graphite, silver, gold, platinum group metals and rare earths – most of which exist in tiny amounts in devices such as smartphones, often making it difficult and expensive to extract them using current reprocessing techniques. Determining the point at which this becomes economically viable is crucial.

“It’s essential that we demonstrate a recovery technique does stack up financially,” says Cooper. “What we hope to do with the project is to look at a range of recovery techniques. Some of those might be lab-based techniques, they might be pilot techniques or larger-scale projects. Part of the assessment will be: what materials do we recover, what’s the cost of that recovery, and what’s the value of that material at the end? So that we really understand the whole chain.”

Measuring success

One of the partners, ERP UK – a WEEE compliance scheme – will be supporting the collection trials undertaken during the project. These will include identifying and managing different collection methods and routes to test how successful they are. Scott Butler, ERP UK’s regional director for the UK and Ireland, feels it is a timely area of research as the availability of critical raw materials could present major issues in the future.

“Is it possible to get more value from WEEE systems across Europe if we think in terms of critical raw materials rather than in terms of the more standard materials such as ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals and plastic? We will be testing these systems and asking if there are different approaches to end-of-life electronics that we can apply to what we do.”

He adds: “We need to establish if there is value. Can critical raw materials be recovered economically and sustainably? [They] are one part of a complex chain and value currently lies in a complex mix of resources, such as steel and plastic that we already know exist in WEEE. We’d like to know whether there is value specifically in end-of-life products that has not yet been identified or accounted for.”

Over the course of the three-and-a-half-year project, the partners aim to increase the recovery of a range of critical raw materials by 5%. Cooper says it’s a challenging target. “Lots of the materials we are talking about have a recovery processes of less than 1% currently.”

It’s also hoped that the initiative will identify some challenges around materials extraction during the recovery process – in turn, this should provide insight into design opportunities. If it is discovered for instance that the effort required to recover small amounts of precious metals is not cost-effective then design strategies for easier disassembly might need to be prioritised.

Sophie Thomas at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), leads the Great Recovery Project, which has engaged in a vast amount of teardown work of electronic devices.

“The key is about looking at where the value lies, and often the value lies in reuse, and keeping it in the system as long as possible,” she points out. “It’s just not worth trying to take the neodymium out of an electric toothbrush motor, for example.”

Thomas questions whether more assessment needs to be done around start-of-life considerations. “Lots of studies have focused on end-of-life – that’s where we’re seeing a lot of the problems, and we’re seeing a lot of the opportunity in terms of material and value loss. But I don’t think that’s the place to start the conversation. A huge amount of innovation goes into new materials and yet there’s no thinking at that level of how you recover those materials in the future.”

CloseWEEE

Smarter disassembly strategies for e-waste will be the focus of another recently launched project, CloseWEEE. This €5.9 million, European-wide initiative aims to close the loop on post-consumer high-grade plastics (such as PC-ABS and PPE-PS) from WEEE items while recovering critical raw materials such as antimony and graphite.

Crucially the project, which will run for four years, will look to improve the flow of information to recyclers by means of a Recycler Information Centre (RIC) that will act as a centralised source for manual disassembly methods specific to each product model. These disassembly guides will help recyclers dismantle electronic devices in a faster and safer way.

One of the partners involved in the project is iFixit, which is helping to build a global community of DIY repair enthusiasts through the publishing of free online repair guides for consumer electronics and gadgets. Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, believes the initiative could be a potential game-changer.

“Despite regulatory requirements in WEEE, recyclers are used to operating without information from producers. They don’t have any information about how to disassemble products safely, about what hazardous materials may be contained inside, or about how to recover parts for reuse,” he says.

Without this manufacturer support, Wiens adds, recyclers have been left to develop their own disassembly methods, which can prove time-consuming and costly. “Disassembly technicians are forced to innovate one product at a time. If they get good at disassembling a particular product, they’ll share the technique with other people on the line – but their knowledge doesn’t benefit other recyclers. What if recyclers could share best disassembly practices with each other, making recycling procedures quicker and safer for everyone?”

The disassembly guides are likely to contain information such as the location of batteries in a device, the presence of hazardous materials such as mercury-containing LCD displays, and will look to identify the value of individual components to improve efficiencies around the harvesting of product parts.

Improve the flow of information

“This database could allow recyclers to standardise electronics disassembly procedures. We’re hoping to improve the flow of information between producers and recyclers,” says Wiens. “The raw material value is the absolute minimum amount that recyclers should be getting from these products. There’s a lot more money to be made if they can repair a fraction of the units or recover parts from them.”

Issues around repairability and fixability are certainly coming to the fore. It’s interesting to note that social enterprise the Restart Project, which began as a London-based grass roots DIY repair movement in 2012, is now attracting the attention of large corporates.

Restart co-founder Ugo Vallauri says there is a lot of potential for corporates to tap into the learnings of such events and apply them to their own organisations. For example, this could involve up-skilling staff on workstation issues which might ultimately help relieve pressure on internal IT departments.

“This is not just about repairing electronics in a corporate setting, but also what it teaches us about the future of work, of business,” says Vallauri before adding that the inclusiveness of such an approach can bring many benefits.

“Repair can release a universal language that can bring people from different backgrounds to the same table. We are all affected by things breaking down, so we all have something to contribute to the conversation.”


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