An economic lung in the mountain of technological garbage
Few will remember, and others will not know, that the near 5,000 gold, silver and bronze medals that were awarded at the last Tokyo Olympics were made from almost 80 tons of waste electrical equipment and electronics (RAEE, as they are known). They were donated for years by Japanese citizens in thousands of municipalities in Japan. Among that electronic waste there were millions of mobile phones, computers, tablets, smart bracelets and watches, even refrigerators and washing machines. From all this mass, 32 kilos of gold, 3,500 of silver and more than 2,000 of bronze were obtained.
This is not a one-off and purely anecdotal event, because this E-garbage (or E-waste for its English terminology) grows every year, and in recent years at a vertiginous rate, as does the concern and interest in reusing, recover and recycle those materials.
According to The Global E-waste Monitor 2020, a reference report prepared by several international institutions –including the United Nations University (UNU)–, in 2019 the record for electrical appliance waste was reached: 53.6 million tons, 21% more than five years ago. To get an idea, it is the equivalent of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2. With this, 57,000 million dollars in gold, silver, platinum, copper and other recoverable materials were lost, which were discarded or burned.
debris that grows
Forecasts indicate that in 2030 this waste will reach 74 million tons and in 2050 more than one hundred. Some estimates that may fall short due to the great technological leap experienced from the pandemic. Now, more than ever, we make intensive use of technology. A fact that, together with planned obsolescence and the fact that we renew our devices more and more frequently, leads us to think, as many already warn, that after plastics, the next wave of garbage will be electrical and electronic waste.
Spain is no stranger to this trend. With data from Recyclia (administrator entity of the main Spanish environmental foundations dedicated to the recycling of electronic waste and batteries) in 2019, 900,000 tons of electronic devices were placed on the market, which represents 25% more than in 2018. Thus, 734 million pieces of equipment were sold. Most (73%) for domestic use.
After reuse (giving electronic devices a second life) and recovery (of parts that still work), recycling is the last step. Which is now valued. In fact, the UN report points out that recovering the raw materials contained in electronic devices to manufacture new devices and other products would give a great boost to the circular economy. That means generating new business models and jobs. «The reuse, recovery and recycling of WEEE is a gold mine for the creation of employment and new companies. And specifically, recycling can generate the installation of new plants, promote new technological processes and attract investment. And in the case of Spain, we can export all this activity to Latin America, where interest in this waste is growing,” he believes. Jose Perez, CEO of Recyclia.
Recycling that waste would bring with it many other benefits. If done well, it would avoid contaminating our environment with dangerous substances (such as mercury, lead, cadmium or nickel) that electronic devices contain. In addition to taking advantage of natural resources that are finite. “Now we waste materials that can be reintroduced into the production cycle. On a global level, the economic value of the GDP of Slovenia and Lithuania is lost every year,” he estimates. Raphael Serrano, Director of Institutional Relations, Marketing and Communication of the Ecolec Foundation, a collective management system created by the business associations of manufacturers and importers of large and small household appliances.
And not only that, raw materials that are critical for Europe can be extracted from electronic waste. That is, minerals and metals for which the Old Continent depends on third countries and are necessary for the manufacture of electronic devices. This is the case of rare earths, which come from China. For example, elements such as ytterbium and terbium allow greater storage in our mobiles, which are very small devices. “The EU has put emphasis on the recovery of strategic materials”, bill Jordi Julián Pidevall, Director of Business Development at Ecotic, a non-profit entity that coordinates the management of WEEE waste. “If a relocation process takes place and we once again have productive companies closer, in Eastern European countries and in Turkey, it becomes more important to take advantage of this waste to extract scarce and essential materials in the development of technological products”, considers Rafael Serrano .
All electrical, electronic waste, technological devices… that incorporate a plug and a battery, that is, a source of energy (from the toaster to the latest iPhone model), contain great value. It is surprising how many raw materials are extracted from them. The most striking are precious metals such as gold, silver, copper, platinum and palladium. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) there is 100 times more gold in a ton of smartphones than in a ton of gold ore. In addition, 90% of its materials can be recovered from a mobile, which are reusable to manufacture other products after subjecting them to different processes.
However, it is not easy at all, as José Pérez explains. “You have to invest a lot in research and in difficult technologies. And large volumes are required to make it profitable. For 100 grams of palladium you need a ton of mobiles.
The long road to extract precious metals
Alicia Grace-Franco, General Director of the Spanish Federation for Recovery and Recycling (FER), illustrates this with an example: «The recycling of electronic boards and components to obtain precious metals requires high knowledge and high investments. What’s more a large number of plates are required for the process to be profitable at an industrial level. That is why there are very few plants in Europe. Spain exports these plates to Belgium».
It is a long process. «Mobile circuits have a lot of value in the market because palladium and coltan can be recovered, which are minerals with high value. The plants in Belgium and Scotland extract the circuit soldered to the plate. This is then shipped to another plant in Canada for the precious metals.” So where is the business? «In Spain we do not have installed technological capacity to carry out this separation process. We extract the motherboards but they are not given away. You receive a price for it, therefore we take advantage of the economic value”, says Rafael Serrano.
Here is the iron, tin, copper and aluminum that is obtained from WEEE waste. Also glass and plastics. “We have foundries to transform these metals and generate new products,” says Rafael Serrano. And that seems more profitable. “By volume, a 70-kilo refrigerator, which uses 95% of its materials, weighs more than the motherboard of a computer or a mobile phone,” he considers. In fact, 37% of the aluminum and 40% of the steel consumed in Europe does not come from a mine but from recycled material, according to the FER.
But in these cases they are not simple processes either. Electrical appliances contain harmful substances and are harmful to the environment (cadmium, mercury, lead, phosphorus…), which must be treated properly. “In a refrigerator you have to remove the oil from the compressor. The apparatus is covered with a foam containing greenhouse gases. It must be placed in a chamber for decontamination. That also needs millions of investment”, says Serrano.
The recycling of technological plastics is the other field in which work is being done. «New processes are being generated to separate and recycle more and better these plastics, which have very different types. And companies are appearing that carry out these processes”, says Pidevall.
how they are managed
The Collective Systems of Extended Producer Responsibility (SCRAP), such as Recyclia, Ecotic or Ecolec, are in charge of EEE waste. «All systems recover around 50% (the legislation now requires 65%) of what is put on the market. There is another half that stays at home or ends up in landfills or ends up in junkyards or in illegal waste trafficking, “says Serrano.
This waste is collected in clean points, commercial establishments or in logistics platforms for storage, classification and subsequent treatment in recycling plants. “The plants try to recover as much as possible to sell as a by-product. For example, the gases from an air conditioner are reused for another appliance, after a cleaning process”, says Pidevall. An entire industry that has a long way to go and that can be a goldmine for creating new circular economy businesses.
The Collective Systems of Extended Producer Responsibility (SCRAP) are in charge of recycling WEEE waste. These are non-profit organizations made up of manufacturers and importers of electrical and electronic equipment. According to Royal Decree 110/2015, which regulates WEEE, it is the device producer himself who must finance the management of said waste. “Manufacturers pay a management cost based on what they put on the market and we SCRAP are the ones who manage that waste,” says Rafael Serrano, from Ecolec.