The UK could recover critical raw materials worth £13 million per year from waste electricals

The UK is losing at least £13.64 million of critical raw materials due to the lack of advanced recovery technologies in the UK, according to new research.

The research found that 379,000 kg of critical and precious raw materials are found in waste electrical components and circuit boards, including gold, silver and palladium, and these are worth £148 million a year.

These are currently exported for treatment with some lost through existing recycling processes, the report found. The carbon footprint equivalent for mining for these materials is 128,666 tonnes of CO2.

If the UK recycled more lost waste electricals and invested in new waste electricals processing infrastructure we could capture more of these valuable materials.

The research also found that by collecting and recycling the 300,000 tonnes of lost waste electricals and by investing in new commercially available waste electricals processing infrastructure, the UK could capture more of these materials, including recovering critical raw materials that are strategically important to the UK.

The research, “Contributing towards a circular economy utilising Critical Raw Materials from Waste Electricals”, was commissioned by Material Focus, the not for profit behind the Recycle Your Electricals campaign, and conducted by Giraffe Innovation.

The research found that less than 1% of all rare earth elements that are in electricals are being recycled, instead being lost in dust generated by the pre-processing of waste electricals and during existing metal recovery processes that don’t target them.

Valuable materials

Scott Butler, Executive Director, Material Focus: “This research highlights that critical raw materials don’t need to be lost, and for the first time shows the investment opportunities in building a circular economy for critical raw materials in the UK.

“If the UK recycled more lost waste electricals and invested in new waste electricals processing infrastructure we could capture more of these valuable materials.”

Professor Rob Holdway, Director, Giraffe Innovation Ltd: “This research identifies nascent recycling technologies that support the UK’s resource security and reduces our reliance on imports of critical raw materials.

“These technologies reinforce the move towards a circular economy with significant financial and environmental benefits.”

Key findings

Other key findings from the research identified:

  • IT equipment such as desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, screens, monitors and lighting were a key priority for recycling as they contain significant quantities of valuable metals.
  • The majority of the overall economic value would come from precious materials i.e. gold, silver, and platinum group metals such as palladium, due to their quantity and market value.  A smaller proportion of the economic value would come from other metals, such as tin, antimony and yttrium, which command lower commodity prices but were included due to their critical value to the economy.
  • There are a range of technologies that could be used to recover the critical raw materials from waste electricals. Generally, these new processing plants would utilise more advanced alternatives to the current methods deployed by existing waste processing systems, to better target elements that are currently lost. These technologies are currently being deployed around the world, for example plants in New Zealand, Canada, Turkey, South Africa and Romania.

The potential for critical and precious raw materials recovered from waste electricals lies in what they could be recycled into, including:

  • The 82.5kg of platinum recovered could help produce 11,785 new catalytic converters;
  • The 1,560 kgs of gold recovered could help make 487,500 new wedding rings; and
  • The 3,300 kgs of neodymium recovered could help manufacture 2,661 new 1.3 MW wind turbines.

Critical raw materials

Critical raw materials are vital in the manufacture of a wide range of electrical items, such as mobile phones, tablets and smart TV’s. Overall demand for raw materials globally is expected to double between 2010 and 2030, with demand for critical raw materials in particular expected to accelerate by 20 times over the same period.

There are widespread concerns that any international restrictions that might limit access to these critical raw materials could cause potential spikes in pricing and disrupt supply chains.

This in turn could hinder development and utilisation of technologies incorporating these materials and therefore limit the UK’s ability to combat climate change.

Metals form essential parts of components inside products, from the gold-edged electrical contacts, to the memory chips and even the touchscreens.

These ‘Technology Metals’ (many of which are also considered to be ‘Critical Raw Materials’) can range from precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum, but also include more unusual and critical materials such as Tantalum, Vanadium and Yttrium.

The Global E-waste monitor 2020 reported that UK electrical waste to be one of the highest per capita in Europe and globally.

They are typically mined in places such as South America, East Asia and Africa. Technology metals are used in numerous green technologies, which are vital for climate change mitigation, such as wind turbines, photovoltaics, batteries, fuel cells, hybrid and electrical vehicles.

They also have important uses as catalysts for cars, and in chemical and pharmaceutical production. With the UK government’s ambitions to be a world leader in reducing CO2 emissions, ensuring security of supply for technology metals will be crucial.

The Global E-waste monitor 2020 reported that UK electrical waste to be one of the highest per capita in Europe and globally.

Waste electricals were also reported to be one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and the world.

With the UK throwing away 300,000 tonnes of electrical waste from households and businesses each year, the research highlights the potential for increased recycling of electricals as a means to address the UK’s economic vulnerability regarding these materials.

Instead the creation of jobs in a new industry sector, alongside reducing the UK’s CO2 impact by recycling these precious materials rather than mining for virgin materials, could together provide a key tool in the UK’s ability to move to a circular economy, the research found.

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