UK must upgrade recovery technologies to prevent critical raw material losses

Recently published research has revealed that the UK is losing £13.64 million of critical raw materials due to the lack of advanced recovery technologies.

Contributing to a circular economy utilising Critical Raw Materials from Waste Electricals was commissioned by Material Focus and conducted by Giraffe Innovation.

Mountain of electrical wasteThe research found that 379,000kg of critical and precious raw materials are found in waste electrical components and circuits boards, including gold, silver, and palladium, totalling £148 million per year.

At present, most of these materials are exported overseas for recovery, yet many critical raw materials are lost during processing.

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

The research also outlined how more of these materials could be captured, including critical raw materials that are strategically important to the UK.

It pointed out that this could be done by collecting and recycling the 300,000 tonnes of lost waste electricals, and by investing in new commercially available waste electricals processing infrastructure.

Additional research from the organisation has identified that the introduction of kerbside waste electricals and electronics (WEEE) collections could provide the capacity to collect 99,000 tonnes of WEEE, equating to 64 per cent of the 155,000 tonnes of small electricals currently thrown away in the UK.

Modelling estimates predict that up to £21.2 million would be required to set up the service for new households, with a further £9.9 million per annum required to run the recycling service.

A range of technologies could be used to recover the critical raw materials from waste electricals. Potential solutions include the use of shredding, increasing the surface area for material recovery, and dust extraction, which would prevent the loss of materials in shredding dust.

Other potential solutions include the use of robotics to identify, sort, and dismantle waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) into similar fractions, electrohydraulic fragmentation, steam gasification, and sequential leaching.

These methods are currently being deployed in plants around the world, in countries such as New Zealand, Canada, and Belgium.

IT equipment such as desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, screens, monitors and lighting were identified by the research as a key priority for recycling, as they contain significant quantities of valuable materials.

The majority of the overall economic value would come from precious materials, such as gold, silver, and platinum, due to their quantity and market value, with a smaller proportion of the economic value coming from other metals such as tin, antimony, and yttrium.

These ‘Technology Metals’, typically mined in places such as South America, East Asia, And Africa, form essential parts of components inside products, including gold-edged electrical contacts, memory chips, and touchscreens.

They are also used in numerous green technologies which are vital for climate change mitigation, such as wind turbines, photovoltaics, batteries, fuel cells, and hybrid and electrical vehicles. Additionally, they have important uses as catalysts for cars, and in chemical and pharmaceutical production.

The research illuminated the potential recycling pathways for several critical and precious metals, stating that the 82.5kg of platinum recovered could help produce 11,785 new catalytic converters, and the 1,560kg of gold recovered could help make 487,500 new wedding rings.

Overall global demand for raw materials is expected to double between 2010 and 2030, and demand for critical raw materials in particular is expected to accelerate by 20 times over the same period.

With the mining process for these materials totalling a carbon footprint equivalent of 128,666 tonnes of CO2, Material Focus and Giraffe Innovation’s research emphasises the need for updated recovery technologies in the UK, particularly with regard to the Government’s ambitions to be a world leader in reducing CO2 emissions.

Concerns have been raised over international restrictions limiting access to these critical raw materials, which could cause potential spikes in pricing and disrupt supply chains, subsequently hindering the development and utilisation of technologies incorporating these materials, limiting the UK’s ability to combat climate change as a result.

In November 2020, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report calling on the UK Government to reconsider its current collection and recycling, with the intention of maintaining access to critical materials by better managing and minimising its WEEE.

The Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 reported that UK electrical waste is set to be one of the highest per capita in Europe, and globally, with waste electricals also reported to be one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK and the world.

In light of this, the research highlights the potential for increased recycling of electricals as a means to address the UK’s economic vulnerability regarding these materials.

With the establishment of advanced recovery technologies holding the potential to create new jobs, alongside reducing the UK’s CO2 impact, the research emphasises this as a ‘key tool’ in the UK’s ability to move to a circular economy.

Scott Butler, Executive Director of Material Focus, said: “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 of Giraffe Innovation Ltd, said: “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.”