Editorial Feature

Efficient Circular Recycling System Method To Deal with Rare Element Waste

From the silicon in our laptops to the rare-earth metals in our smartphones, we are consuming rare elements at an unprecedented rate.  How are these elements recycled? A circular model of recycling is what’s required, where reuse, recycling and remanufacturing is built in.

How many mobile phones have you bought in your lifetime?  Where are they now?  Apart from the plastics and glass what else makes up a phone?  One of the answers is rare earth metals which are mined in small operations around the globe.  These metals are difficult to extract and process and when they’re mined, that’s it, they’re gone.

How about laptops?  Hair dryers?  All electronics products use metals which must be mined. According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a baby born in the US today will use up 539 lbs of zinc, 903 lbs of lead and 985 lbs of copper during his or her lifetime.  Copper is running out, with demand outstripping supply, leading to dramatic price increases.

One of the challenges facing the recycling of e-products is the speed of innovation. Smartphones are released in an unrelenting torrent of new designs and capabilities; while the diversity of technology increases by its inherent nature, seemingly infinitely.  Recycling of new tech does happen, but it’s labour intensive, haphazard and not viewed as part of the manufacturing system.

Circular Economy

Circular economy is an industrial system that aims to avoid waste through the design of optimised cycles of products, components and materials by keeping them at their highest utility and value; it’s a perfect match for e-products which tend to use rare elements that are of high economic and environmental value and vulnerable to supply disruption.

A circular economy covers the entire lifecycle of a product, with the aim of narrowing and closing resource loops.  Current practises are based on the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive which needs to be aligned with the European Commission’s Circular Economy Strategy.  Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have put forward an improved system that is simple, comprehensive and just might succeed.

What Are The Challenges?

  • End of Life (EoL) and manufacturing systems are separate
  • Lack of material oriented perspective (reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing not encouraged)
  • Lack of a comprehensive product family approach (PFA)
  • generalized ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach (different devices shredded together, without making use of device components)

Solution: Proper Characterisation Of Devices

Devices are characterised intrinsically (function, design features, material composition) or extrinsically (maturity level and lifespan, price range).  This information is used to decide on how a device or its components are recycled and where it or its components enter the manufacturing loop.

Moving Towards A Zero-Waste Circular Recycling Model

By analysing data from recycling case studies involving hard disks, robotic vacuums and other e-products the researchers present a dynamic system based on the philosophy of “product family”. This is supported by an improved collection system; a pre-sorting and testing platform; and a family-centric processing of EoL products.

It requires improvements to EoL collection procedures; e.g. items such as monitors must not be broken.  The potential for reuse and refurbishment is high for items such as smartphones which are expensive and have a short lifespan; door to door collection of hoarded “hibernated stock” with a potential monetary incentive is proposed.

Additionally, sorting centres should be supplemented with a testing station so that working items can be tested and fed back into the appropriate part of the recycling loop.  Case studies at The University of Southern Denmark have shown that a family centred processing approach, where devices are softly dismantled in order to create component concentrates, are much more effective than current methods of shredding and recovery.

With some more planning and forward thinking industry and government can make great improvements on the current systems to make them more circular, with less waste and pollution, more reuse, refurbishment and remanufacture.

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1. Parajuly, K., Habib, K., Cimpan, C., Liu, G. & Wenzel, H. End-of-life resource recovery from emerging electronic products ? A case study of robotic vacuum cleaners. J. Clean. Prod. 137, 652–666 (2016).

2. Sprecher, B., Kleijn, R. & Kramer, G. J. Recycling potential of neodymium: The case of computer hard disk drives. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 9506–9513 (2014).

3. Yan, G., Xue, M. & Xu, Z. Disposal of waste computer hard disk drive: data destruction and resources recycling. Waste Manag. Res. 31, 559–67 (2013).

4. Parajuly, K. & Wenzel, H. Product Family Approach in E-Waste Management: A Conceptual Framework for Circular Economy. Sustain. 2017, Vol. 9, Page 768 9, 768 (2017).

5. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/photographee.eu

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