Is increased recycling of portable electronics viable?

Is increased recycling of portable electronics viable?

Increased and effective recycling of portable electronics offers a more sustainable source for key critical materials, such as gallium, indium, and rare earth elements. However, change is unlikely to come quickly enough to significantly impact demand for newly mined resources.

Blue View

Most of the critical materials found in the 57 tonnes of waste electronic and electrical equipment produced each year are lost to landfill and are not recovered and returned to production cycles. A campaign launched by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) says that there needs to be a global effort to begin mining that waste rather than mining the Earth for new materials. "Our tech consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw elements we need," said Prof Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, adding that those habits were "continuing to exacerbate environmental damage".

The recycle rates for the critical materials used in portable electronics are low due to the fact they are used in small concentrations across a large number of applications making collection and recycling difficult. Indium, for example, used in transistors and microchips, has a recycle rate of less than 1% with dissipative losses to landfill of around 90% compared to an average of 50% for other critical materials. A combination of consumer awareness and effective recycling technologies could lead to the increased recycling of critical materials in portable electronics but this is unlikely to be at a scale that significantly impacts on primary production demand.

While building a circular economy is critical part of a sustainable energy transition, it isn’t a short-term solution for many critical material supply chains.  An exception is lithium-ion battery raw materials where recycling continues to gain pace (especially in China) as the recycling loop matures.  Notably, last week, Glencore and Li-Cycle signed a deal in which the latter will supply all types of manufacturing scrap and end-of-life lithium-ion batteries to Li-Cycle.

 

 

  • 10 May 2022
  • Light rare earths
  • Heavy rare earths
  • Lithium
  • Manganese
  • Cobalt
  • Nickel
  • Gallium
  • Germanium
  • Indium

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