The many and varied forecasts relating to the scale and expansion rate of the electronic scrap recycling market agree on one key point: this remains the fastest-growing sector across the entire recycling spectrum. With some analysts predicting compound annual growth rates well into double figures for the remainder of this decade, the consensus is that annual market worth will be somewhere north of US$ 8 billion by the year 2030, at which point e-scrap volumes worldwide are expected to have leapt to 75 million tonnes per annum.
This pace of change would be a challenge for any commodity sector but the projections are especially daunting when one considers that, over those next seven or eight years, e-scrap will continue to change massively in nature through a continuation of the mega trend towards ever-smaller products and greater multi-functionality. This means, firstly, that an ever higher number of items must be processed to maintain recovery volumes at commercially viable levels and, secondly, that recyclers will require yet more sophisticated, and expensive, processing technology.
So the financial risk-and-reward equation becomes ever more difficult to resolve at a time when our general costs – notably for energy and labour – are increasing constantly.
And the complications do not end there. Even taking the example of Europe, where e-scrap management developments have been more substantial than in most other parts of the world, only 55% of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is reported as officially collected and responsibly recycled. Latest figures (for 2020) reveal that just over 10 kg was collected per inhabitant in the EU – still well short of the target of 16 kg. In my home country of the Netherlands, we see a lot of WEEE in mixed scrap which should be sorted before treatment and sent to WEEELABEX-certified recyclers implementing CENELEC standards.
For many years, our industry has been urging the design of electronic products for ease of recycling. Of equal importance perhaps, new products should be designed with easy-access batteries to aid disassembly and minimize fire risk. Every business in every industry is asked to comply with health and safety standards to protect employees and the general public, so it seems counter- intuitive that our calls for urgent action on lithium-ion batteries are going largely unheeded despite the increasing number of battery-related fires.
As demonstrated in a compelling video shown at our meeting in Dubai last October, the impact of such fires extends well beyond the immediate danger to personnel and property – for example, to higher insurance premiums and to skilled workers leaving for other jobs when fire-hit plants shut for rebuilds.
At our earlier meeting in Barcelona, Dr Alvaro Rodríguez de Sanabria of VOI Technology confirmed that thermal and hydrometallurgical recycling options were available for spent lithium-ion batteries but that the value of the extracted elements fell short of covering processing costs. His own conclusion was that extended producer responsibility represented the only solution to this challenge.
The Barcelona gathering also highlighted other threats to the delicate commercial balance of the e-scrap business. The necessary investment in Europe’s WEEE plastics recycling capacity is unlikely to be forthcoming if thresholds for persistent organic pollutants (POPs) continue to change. Lowering the thresholds for POP brominated flame retardants would drive more material into undocumented streams and thus hinder progress towards a more circular economy. It should be remembered that the average plastics share of electronic goods has leapt from below 20% to around 30% in the last decade alone.
The financial well-being of our businesses also depends on open trading routes; nothing should be allowed to hamper exports of WEEE and of components once end-of-waste criteria and proper treatment have been guaranteed. From the start of 2025, however, country-to-country shipments of e-scrap will be subject to a notification and certification system similar to that introduced for plastic in 2021. Fred Fischer of the US Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries warned in Dubai that this cumbersome Prior Informed Consent regime under the Basel Convention would dampen trade and potentially convince many companies that the business was no longer commercially viable.
Given all the challenges outlined above, it would be easy to conclude that e-scrap recycling is an unpromising way of earning a living. However, it is also an environmentally essential line of business that is best placed in the hands of an industry with decades of experience and expertise in this highly- specialized field.
For most people, electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, tablets and laptops have become an essential part of their everyday lives. Worldwide, there is barely a corner of human activity which electronics have failed to penetrate, with an estimated 4.5 billion people now using the Internet, for example. Every year, a large proportion of these consumers buy new, updated equipment in a bid to keep pace with the latest technology trends.
The reuse, repair, refurbishment and eventual recycling of electrical and electronic equipment are not new activities. The repair of electrical and electronic equipment was a common activity for small businesses throughout most of the 20th century; however, manufacturers built in obsolescence in the 1990s and onwards, leading to a decline in the repairability of goods and in the number of repair shops. However, the public’s desire for longer-lasting, quality products is providing renewed impetus to refurbishment and repair, and as a result a better use of resources.
While cookers, refrigerators, freezers and air-conditioning units can last many years, consumer electronics become obsolete or unwanted often within two or three years of their purchase. The global mountain of e-scrap is expected to continue growing at more than 3% per year, according to BIR-commissioned research.
Recyclers have always found value in the metals contained in electrical and electronic equipment. However, recycling would be further facilitated if designs were to take full account of the ultimate recyclability of a product; some manufacturers have made great strides in this direction - partly in response to legislative and marketing pressure - but there is scope for further progress and for greater co-operation between product designers and recyclers.
IN-DEPTH BIR STUDY
As part of its remit to examine the potential for greater recycling, BIR’s E-Scrap Committee commissioned a study into both national arisings and transboundary movements of e-scrap. Based on real data and on an extrapolation of figures from some 180 countries around the world, this revealed that global generation of e-scrap is expected to soar from 41.2 million tonnes in 2016 to almost 54 million tonnes by the year 2025, with the fastest growth projected for the Asia-Pacific region where generation is anticipated to surge from 3.6 kg per inhabitant to 5 kg over the same nine-year period. By contrast, growth is thought likely to be significantly slower in the mainly saturated markets of North America and Europe.
Depollution: Before material recycling, certain countries require best-practice depollution of scrap electrical and electronic equipment in order to remove hazardous components or materials to enable their environmentally sound management and to ensure they do not contaminate subsequent recycling processes or recycled materials.
Sorting: Scrap electrical and electronic equipment is generally hand-sorted and dismantled in order to separate out materials and components for reuse, repair or material recovery. The aim is to obtain the most value from the equipment as a whole, or from its components, or from its materials.
Shredding: After required pre-treatment, large electrical appliances such as cookers and washing machines are commonly shredded in large hammermills together with other metal scrap and pre-treated end-of-life vehicles. After the required pre-treatment, small electrical goods may be fed into smaller dedicated shredders using a variety of shredding methods. Depending on national laws, pre-treated refrigerators, freezers and cooling equipment may be shredded in dedicated enclosed shredders in order to capture gases used in their manufacture and use.
Recyclers aim to find a secondary raw materials market for plastics, glass from inside refrigerators and other non-metallic materials separated from scrap electrical and electronic equipment.
Media separation: Further separation is achieved using eddy-current separators, or high-pressure air flows or flotation systems using liquids of varying densities. Other processes may be necessary to separate materials from each other, recycling them separately.
Melting: The recovered metals are melted in a furnace. The melting, refining and alloying process is determined by the standardized composition necessary for the future applications of the metal alloys. The molten metal is then poured into moulds or cast into shapes. Later, they can be rolled into flat sheets used to manufacture new products.