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When recovery is critical

Have you noticed that there is an increasing number of schemes offering to buy back old mobile phones and electrical items such as TVs, laptops and even vacuum cleaners? As well as being able to reuse these items in ‘second life’, they contain valuable metals and, in many cases, small quantities of critical raw materials (CRMs).

The raw materials such as indium and terbium, which are critical to enabling everyday electronic transactions work with such ease and speed, are becoming more important than ever because they are essential components in new technology such as wind turbines, fibre optics, electric cars and modern medicine. But questions are being raised about the availability and security of supply for CRMs.

The European Commission (EC) has identified 14 economically important raw materials which are defined as “critical” due to their importance in technology development, and are subject to a higher risk of supply interruption. According to the EC, “supply risks may also be accentuated by the low political-economic stability of the main supply country as well as by the low substitutability and low recycling rates of the raw material itself”.

Interruptions to supply, be these environmental - such as last year’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami - or geopolitical, not only affect the availability but also the price of these resources.

With CRMs being essential in a vast array of new and innovative technologies, many individuals, businesses and governments are now considering it prudent to identify ways of securing the future supply of these materials in the volumes and purity required.

Currently in the UK, an estimated one-third of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) is discarded in landfill, and working electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) is exported for reuse overseas. Our processing of these materials is mainly by shredding - which can extract the metals and plastics but ‘waste’ the CRM element via landfill or incineration of the residual fraction - or the lot is sent for export.

This seems ludicrous when the materials are worth thousands of pounds per tonne. But the quantities in individual WEEE items are often minute and, in most cases, the UK does not have the infrastructure, investment or incentive to extract them. Investment has traditionally been weak in this area because of high costs and unknown returns.

In support of Defra’s Resource Security Action Plan, WRAP is currently investigating the commercial viability of upgrading existing WEEE infrastructure to encompass secondary processing capable of extracting these materials.

Although new research shows it is technically possible to separate some CRMs by automatic identification technology, WRAP has yet to prove if this will be enough to make the investment commercially viable. The current process of shredding is popular, relatively cheap and the outputs have strong overseas markets. But this does little to protect access to these valuable resources in an uncertain future.

Efficient primary use, repair and reuse of discarded CRMs clearly make sense from an environmental perspective, but they makes business sense too. There is an opportunity here for recyclers to integrate reuse within their existing facilities. But where products cannot be reused or repaired, there is also an opportunity for UK WEEE reprocessors.

Expansion to offer greater extraction of these valuable products would also reposition reprocessors into the supply chain for recovered CRMs. There is some evidence that a small number of businesses are taking steps in this direction, but WRAP research shows there is much more opportunity to be exploited.

With the recently recast WEEE Directive setting higher collection targets, more WEEE items are likely to be coming through the system. This should make this more commercially attractive to reprocessors with an eye on the future.

Of course, the business case and commercial viability are essential to decision making. But there is a significant opportunity for forward-thinking WEEE reprocessors to add value to their businesses by adding secondary processing to current operations. WRAP is also looking into investment support.

With economic growth the priority in the UK, and a desire to further develop our manufacturing roots, smart thinking is needed to make the most of the resources we have, future-proof our businesses and ensure we have access to the CRMs we need to develop this sector.

Technology innovation centres or mini-Silicon Valleys are springing up in the most unlikely of places. For example,’Silicon roundabout’, linking Shoreditch, Hoxton and Old Street in east London, is rapidly becoming a major hub for digital technology firms, which require all those unseen CRM components.

Many CRMs are also critical components in low-carbon technology. These include neodymium, which is needed for electric car manufacture (worth £136,000 a tonne); indium, needed for LCDs in plasma and flat screen TVs, smartphones and notebook computers (worth £360,760 per tonne); and terbium, needed for wind turbines (worth £2.4m per tonne).

In an increasingly volatile world, broadening our options for sourcing CRMS can only be a good thing. Not only will the UK retain the raw resources, but we will also boost our knowledge and skill base as to how to deal with them in the most efficient way.

British technology industries will increasingly be looking for these ‘ingredients’, and significant supply contracts are likely to be up for grabs in the not too distant future. n

Marcus Gover is director of WRAP’s Closed Loop Economy Programme

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