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Environmental Audit Committee E-Waste Inquiry

The use of electronic devices and equipment has boomed in recent years thanks to advances in technology, materials and software. There are now more devices connected to the internet than there are humans on the planet. This is predicted to continue, fuelled by rising consumer demand and decreasing costs.

This growth has led to a rapid increase in electronic waste (e-waste). Globally, 44.7 million tonnes of e-waste were produced in 2017, 90% of which was sent to landfill, incinerated, illegally traded or treated in a sub-standard way. Europe and the US account for almost half of all e-waste globally, with the EU predicted to produce 12 million tonnes by 2020.

The Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons launched an inquiry into 'Electronic waste (E-waste) and the circular economy' in June 2019. The consultation documents can be read in full on Parliament's website.

The submission made by the Society can be read below.

The Geological Society

Submission to the Environmental Audit Committee: Electronic waste and the circular economy

  1. The Geological Society (GSL) is the UK’s learned and professional body for geoscience and a major international Earth science publisher with about 12,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia, regulatory agencies and government with a broad range of perspectives on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies, those in education, and other non-technical audiences.
  2. We are not best placed to respond to all of the questions outlined in the inquiry but have instead responded to questions as and where they relate to geoscience research and industry.

Why does recovering materials from electronic waste pose a significant challenge? What support is required to facilitate the adoption of recovery technologies?

  1. All metal and mineral resources used in electronics, even recycled resources, ultimately come from the Earth. There is huge scope to change how we use precious mined resources, and it is vital that we do so.  Some metals (e.g. lead and aluminium) are already extensively recycled, often because there are particular drivers to do so (toxicity, high energy costs of extracting them from minerals, etc.), and there are relatively well-developed socio-technical systems in place to support circularity in some application areas (e.g. return, refurbishment and remanufacture of traditional car batteries which contain a lot of lead). Even in these cases there is scope to do much more, such as improving design to increase recovery and recycling rates.

    In many other cases, recycling rates remain very low, and many current and future large-scale technology applications (including lots of electronic technologies as part of decarbonisation targets in the UK and internationally) presently lack any pathways towards effective recovery and recycling of resources or, more generally, more sustainable and efficient use of resources. This does not mean that these challenges are intractable. Rather, that there is room for improvement in response to incentives for companies, researchers and other actors which have thus far been lacking.
  2. We are at the early stages of a shift in the way we use mineral resources. This paradigm shift is necessary both because of the enormous challenge of meeting future demand for resources, and because we must address the social and environmental impacts of mining and using raw materials if we are to live sustainably and equitably on our crowded planet (and, in doing so, secure public support for these activities). There are many potential barriers and challenges to achieving this transformation, but it will also bring many opportunities for commercial and competitive advantage (at the company level, for industrial sectors, for the UK, etc.) in addition to delivering major benefits to people, communities and the environment.
  3. There is exciting UK-led research and innovation across academia and industry on this area but there remains much government could do to stimulate and incentivise step-changes in recovery, recycling and re-use. Research consortia such as the ‘CEReS’ project - bringing together research and industry partners from the UK, Poland, France and Belgium to work along the value chain from the wastes characterisation step to the transformation of these wastes into new resources - do valuable work in this area. This is an area of research that has tended to fall between the remit covered by individual research councils and their priorities. There are grounds for optimism that this will improve under the new UKRI structure, which has been put in place partly in recognition of the need for far greater and more effective interdisciplinarity to address societal challenges than has typically been the case hitherto. But it cannot be assumed that interdisciplinary research agendas and communities will simply spring up to address these challenges, especially if they are currently insufficiently recognised or well-characterised.

    There are significant opportunities for the UK to take a leading role, from fundamental preliminary research in areas where effective management of wastes and recovery of resources are currently impossible, through to interdisciplinary approaches to reconfiguring innovation systems to stimulate the shift to a circular economy, and industrial application of novel technologies. Failure to seize these opportunities risks the UK’s future economic competitiveness and delivery of its high-tech focused industrial strategy. This dependency should justify significant government effort to set priorities, carry out facilitating actions and provide focused research and innovation funding working through UKRI.
  4. Recovering materials from electronic waste is a vital part of delivering secure access to critical metals, sustainably managing mined resources for present and future generations, but also to limit the environmental damage sustained by primary resource extraction and processing. Progress towards higher rates of recovery will reduce dependence on resources which are heavily concentrated in particular locations (cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example). Beyond securing supplies, recovery can deliver important benefits for environmental protection. In addition to the well-documented impact of poorly managed mining operations on the surrounding environment, rock crushing, smelting and metal refining is also very energy intensive and a major emitter of CO2. The 2017 Government Office for Science report on ‘From waste to resource productivity’ noted that the proportion of global energy used to crush rock is around 3-5%1.
  5. It is worth noting here that while metals for decarbonisation technology and the recovery systems that deliver them will play an important role in meeting UK and international decarbonisation targets, they are unlikely to generate the major reductions in CO2 emissions that might be achieved by making small efficiencies in major CO2 emitting industries such as steel, copper and aluminium production, or simply in extending the lifetime of widespread consumer electronics such as computers, electric vehicles and smart phones.

    The 5 materials that contribute 55 per cent of global CO2 emissions from industry are steel, cement, plastic, paper and aluminium2. Interventions to optimise production of these materials used extensively in buildings, infrastructure, equipment and products will deliver major CO2 reductions that cannot be achieved through efficiencies in technology metal production and recycling, simply because the scale of production is so much smaller. Professor Julian Allwood’s research group at the University of Cambridge, ‘The Use Less Group’, have done a considerable amount of work into the sustainable use of materials, energy and resources. 

The use and recovery of critical metals and materials

  1. Many of the electronic devices we use every day such as computers, mobile phones and computers require a multitude of mined metals and materials to develop the sophisticated circuit boards, microchips and batteries required to deliver their function and performance. By way of example, the average smartphone requires 72 elements found in the periodic table, 62 of which are metals. These include zinc, gold, copper, palladium and tantalum to name just a few. These metals are traded as part of a global raw materials market and are mined, processed and used in complex global supply chains. These materials have been extracted from mined ores which are crushed and then separated during processing before being recombined with other metals and compounds in the production of complex microchips, circuit boards, batteries, etc.
  2. It is important to consider the life cycle of the individual metal and material components when analysing the potential gains that can be delivered through enhanced recycling. Many of the metals found in electronics that could be usefully extracted are grouped in specific ways according to the component being manufactured. The recycling of metals in electronic waste is often driven by recovering the so-called precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum which have a high market price. In extracting these, other metals can also come out during the separation process, depending on how they are combined. For example, for gold, silver and platinum, recycling will also recover copper, but that is not the case for other critical metals such as tantalum and indium. Another important factor is the volume of metal or material used and therefore the amount available for recovery. So-called ‘technology metals’ such as indium, niobium and platinum are mined and used in much smaller quantities than industrial metals such as copper and iron and reduced volume creates barriers to reaching commercial recovery.
  3. In many cases, the combination of metals optimised for a given manufactured product results in difficult extraction metallurgy where separating the materials out into the individual metals or materials of interest can be very complicated chemically. It can also be very energy intensive, so much so that the environmental benefits of recovery are lost. By way of example, the case study discussed in the Critical Metals Handbook3 (Figure 3.7, Chapter 3) of the recovery process used by Umicore to recover technology metals highlights some of the challenges faced in recovering metals such as silver, gold, palladium, etc., in particular the sophisticated smelter-refinery process required. These are technologies and processes that may not be easily scaled-up or replicated to reach international recovery targets. Additionally, for some metals and materials it is very difficult to reach very high levels of recovery (100% recovery is often thermodynamically impossible) as some is left over in the by-product or slag. Metals are rarely recovered from the waste slag as the process is not economic.
  4. Chapter 7 of the Government Office for Science report ‘From waste to resource productivity’, published in 2017, is particularly instructive on the area of resource recovery. It includes a useful case study on platinum recycling and recovery that is summarised here:
    • The global supply of platinum used in fuel cells, computer hard disks and as catalysts in hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (to name just a few of its uses) is dominated by mine production. In 2014, total global mine production was 146 tonnes1, predominantly from South Africa.
    • Platinum has been classified as a ‘critical metal’ by the European Commission due to both its economic importance and the potential for supply risk4.  
    • Mine supply is currently supplemented by a significant global contribution from recycling (64 tonnes in 2014)1.
    • In recycling platinum, the efficiencies vary across regions and applications. In glass manufacturing for example, around 95% recycling can be achieved. This is not even across sectors as in some processes, assurances can’t be made about the amount recovered at the end of product life. This is commonly due to inefficiencies in collecting materials. So, for example, recycling rates for platinum from auto catalysts has a global average between 50-60% and from electronic devices, it can be as low as 5-10%.
    • Recycling rates are also heavily impacted by price. Drops in the market price of platinum disincentivises recycling but rates are also impacted by other factors in the production and recycling chain. External factors such as a drop in the price of oil and steel reduces the incentives to scrap vehicles (where platinum is used in catalytic converters of diesel cars) which can inadvertently impact on platinum recycling efficiency.
  5. It is worth noting that while certain elements, minerals and metals are considered critical, there may be others that could substitute them in key technologies e.g. vanadium can sometimes be a substitute for platinum in certain applications. Research into new technologies therefore ideally takes account of both the availability of critical materials but also lists those other materials that could substitute where appropriate. This therefore provides guidance for the natural resources and recycling markets who can actively explore for substitute materials.
  6. With each recycling chain, the most effective approach will be to work to understand where interventions can take place to deliver most impact and to mitigate losses in the cycle. In some supply chains this might be around improved efficiencies for collection, as with platinum, in others it may be around making efficiencies around energy intensive separation techniques. Around maximising the environmental impact, it will be imperative that electronic goods containing precious metals are not exported to countries that lack effective and environmentally friendly recycling infrastructure. 

Economies of scale and the future of electronic waste recovery

  1. The exploration and extraction of primary resources as part of a global mining and refining business is very well-established. This supply chain is very efficient both in terms of the economics of production and the optimisation of supply chains. The recycling of electronic waste and implementation of a circular economy is in its infancy by comparison to the use of primary resources, and this makes the comparable economics challenging. Increasing the volume of waste streams for recycling and recovery will allows us to maximise economic efficiencies and minimise environmental footprint.
  2. Critical to growing and sustaining a circular economy for electronic waste will be a focus on international markets, rather than a UK-focused approach, in order to develop the economies of scale required for a competitive market. Waste is already a global trade that is highly dispersed and while the total volumes are significant, they are not concentrated at scale in individual countries. Global trades in waste will be required to develop the requisite economies of scale and as the centre of the global metals trade, London will be well-placed to optimise the UK’s involvement in electronic waste recycling and benefit from the various support services that the burgeoning market will need. As of 2017, the global recycling market handles over 600 million tonnes of ‘recyclables’ every year and was valued in 2017 with an annual turnover of more than £264 billion5. The UK’s role in this market is as processor, importer and exporter.
  3. The development of electric vehicles (eVs) as part of the UK Government’s current policy of 100% zero emissions vehicles by 2040, along with the targets set by other countries, will generate a significant demand for a number of materials and metals including lithium, cobalt and nickel used in eV batteries. The circuit boards of eVs contain significantly more semi-conductor materials than regular car batteries, and this is likely to be the most important determinant for metal and material demand going forward. The increase in demand for critical metals needed for renewable energy technologies (rare earth metals in wind turbines, for example) will also contribute to the increasing demand for greater volumes and a wider variety of metals and materials.  
  4. The ramping up of eV manufacturing to meet not just UK but also international zero emission car targets could create economies of scale for a competitive international market in electronic waste recycling for critical metals and minerals. The more electric vehicles manufactured, the bigger the scope for a recycling market and thus the viability of recycling increases significantly. This will quickly reduce marginal costs and over time electronic waste can be recharacterised as a resource rather than a waste product.
  5. Recycling of electronic waste and a move towards a circular economy will be a welcome contribution to delivering on resource demand, reducing environmental impact and, where possible, contributing to efforts toward net zero emissions. In addition, it is undoubtedly true that we will continue to need to mine large quantities of mineral resources. This is due to material requirements arising from global population growth and increased urbanisation where there is simply not enough resource in recycled materials to meet demand. Additionally, the metals and other minerals we will need in the coming decades will not be the same as those we have needed and produced in the past, and in most cases there is simply not enough of them already in use (in infrastructure, in consumer goods, etc.) to meet future need even if we were able to recycle 100% of these.

    But the very scarcity of some of these resources (either already in use, or in known geological deposits of sufficient concentration and quantity to justify their extraction) provides the motive for using them efficiently and repeatedly as we grow their use, and the infancy of the technologies in which they are used provides the opportunity to design and shape products and systems accordingly. It is not particularly meaningful to judge ‘success’ by what percentage of future need of a commodity is/can be met through recycling, as this will depend on how much is available in the system, future technology development and uptake, etc.

    It is far more helpful to think about what proportion of the commodity, once out of the ground and in use, gets recycled/reused, has its life extended, etc. – by this measure, where possible, we can and should aim for 100% recovery. (So, for example, if we aim to meet 100% of our lithium needs from recycling, we are setting ourselves up to fail – there is a very small amount already in use compared to what we will need for the battery revolution in the next few decades. But we could ensure that close to 100% of the lithium in use remains in the system and does not pass into the environment or waste streams – although at the minute we are doing very little to make sure that happens.) 
  6. A helpful way of thinking about this is that we have a responsibility to exercise ‘perpetual stewardship’ of the precious resources we get out of the ground. We will not be able to move away from dependency on mined resources in the foreseeable future, but there are compelling economic, environmental and societal reasons to understand and manage the impacts of extracting and using these resources, to trace them through the system far more effectively, and to ensure that they remain in use in order to maximise the benefit and value we derive from them. This framing of future resource use does not put forward recycling and other circular economy approaches as an alternative to (or even in opposition to) mining – rather, it recognises the need to integrate them and ensure they are implemented responsibly if we are to thrive economically and live sustainably and equitably.

15 August 2019

1 Government Office for Science, From waste to resource productivity: Evidence and Case Studies
2 The Future in Practice, The State of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cambridge, 2012
3 Critical Metals Handbook, Editor: Gus Gunn, December 2013
4 European Commission list of Critical Raw Materials
5 British Geological Survey Science Briefing Paper: Metals and Decarbonisation: A geological perspective, July 2019