Resource Use

Europe-wide project into critical raw materials recovery reaches next stage

Axion Consulting is moving forward with the next stage in a major European research project into the recovery of Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).

The €2.1-million (£1.75-million), three-and-a-half-year Critical Raw Materials Recovery project was launched in October 2015 and has been running collection trials of unwanted data-bearing devices like smartphones and tablets with Axion, Re-Tek and Ecodom, in the north of England, while trials have also been run in Germany, Italy and Turkey.

Europe-wide project into critical raw materials recovery reaches next stage
The CRMs concerned are largely elements that are difficult and expensive to extract, such as cobalt, antimony, graphite, tantalum, rare earth elements (REEs), gold, silver and platinum group metals. The recovery of the raw materials in electronic devices such as smartphones poses a significant headache that needs to be addressed.

The EU generates around 10 million tonnes of WEEE every year, but only around 30 per cent of that is recycled, with some 40 per cent going to landfill, meaning large quantities of crucial raw materials are lost.

The objective of the project is to increase the recovery of target CRMs by five per cent by 2020, and by 20 per cent by 2030, with the trials studying a range of techniques from manual and chemical dismantling to electrochemical and hydrometallurgical processes to increase the recovery of CRMs.

The English trials have covered ten stores working with the British Heart Foundation, Currys PC World and John Lewis, and some will continue into August 2017.

The results of the trials part of the project, led by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) and supported by LIFE, Innovate UK, the Welsh Government and Defra, will go on to inform policy decision-making across Europe.

Axion’s Principal Consultant, Jane Gardner, who will update on the progress of the collection trials and explain how they are focusing on sorting, separating and recovering CRMs from old devices, commented: “This exciting project seeks to improve understanding, not just of consumer behaviour in recycling and reusing these devices, but also how we can recover valuable materials from them in an economically viable and efficient way.”

In order to communicate the resource recovery specialist’s plans for the project, Axion will be presenting at a conference for waste and sustainability managers and researchers in Manchester on 15 June, organised by the Knowledge Transfer Network, called ‘Integrating the Supply Chain for the Recovery of Critical Raw Materials from WEEE’, which aims to assess barriers to improved recovery and recycling of CRMs through the whole supply chain.

Critical recovery

The issue of REEs is particularly demonstrative of the difficulties of recycling these hard-to-get materials, as underlined in a feature in the latest Resource magazine, exploring the sustainability of our increasing use of rare earth elements.

The REEs are made up of the 15 lanthanide metallic elements (numbers 57-71 on the periodic table) and scandium and yttrium. Recycling REEs is an extremely complicated process as the quantities of REEs found in devices are very low and combined in a way that makes them difficult to separate, often distributed through the device on the molecular scale. They are typically lost in traditional methods of electronics recycling.

More information about the Critical Raw Material Recovery project can be found on the project’s website. You can read more about REEs and their recycling in Resource magazine’s latest feature.

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