Recycling e-waste should be a legal requirement in the EU, says report

Recovering the critical raw materials residing within electronic waste will require investment, and a legal framework to incentivise this will be essential, say the authors (image credit: Steve Janosik, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license).

A UN-backed report funded by the EU outlines a proposal whereby the recycling of certain components and sub-systems within electronic equipment should be mandated by law.

The report by the CEWASTE consortium – led by the Switzerland-based World Resources Forum – says this requirement should apply to certain e-waste categories, including: End-of-life circuit boards, certain magnets in disc drives and electric vehicles, EV and other special battery types, and fluorescent lamps.

The measure will be essential to safeguard these components against supply disruption, say the authors, who warn that access to the critical raw materials (CRMs) in these products is vulnerable to geo-political tides. Recycling and reusing them is “crucial” to secure ongoing supplies for regional manufacturing of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) essential for defence, renewable energy generation, LEDs and other green technologies, and to the competitiveness of European firms.

Today, recycling most of the products rich in CRMs is not commercially viable, with low and volatile CRM prices undermining efforts to improve European CRM recycling rates, which today are close to zero in most cases.

The report identifies gaps in standards and proposes an improved, fully tested certification scheme to collect, transport, process and recycle this waste, including tools to audit compliance.

“A European Union legal framework and certification scheme, coupled with broad financial measures will foster the investments needed to make recycling critical raw materials more commercially viable and Europe less reliant on outside supply sources,” says the consortium.

“Acceptance by the manufacturing and recycling industry is also needed, as the standards will only work when there is widespread adoption.”

The report follows the 2020 EU action plan to make Europe less dependent on third countries for CRMs by, for example, diversifying supply from both primary and secondary sources while improving resource efficiency and circularity.

Adds the consortium: “By adopting this report’s recommendations, the EU can be more self-sustaining, help drive the world’s green agenda and create new business opportunities at home.”

The project says the following equipment categories contain CRMs in concentrations high enough to facilitate recycling:

  • Printed circuit boards from IT equipment, hard disc drives and optical disc drives
    Batteries from WEEE and end of life vehicles
  • Neodymium iron boron magnets from hard disc drives, and electrical engines of e-bikes, scooters and end-of-life vehicles (ELVs)
  • Fluorescent powders from cathode ray tubes (CRTs; in TVs and monitors) and fluorescent lamps

Recovery technologies and processes are well established for some CRMs, such as palladium from printed circuit boards or cobalt from lithium-ion batteries.

For other CRMs, ongoing recycling technology development will soon make industrial scale operations possible but needs financial support and sufficient volumes to achieve cost-efficient operations.

Of 60+ requirements in European e-waste-related legislation and standards, few address the collection of CRMs in the key product categories, the consortium found.

They propose several additional technical, managerial, environmental, social and traceability requirements for facilities that collect, transport, and treat waste, for integration into established standards, such as the EU 50625-series.

The overall scheme was tested at European firms in Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland, as well as in Colombia, Rwanda and Turkey.

“Greater CRM recycling is a society-wide responsibility and challenge,” says the consortium. “The relevant authorities must improve the economic framework conditions to make it economically viable.”

CEWASTE project recommendations include:

  • Legislate a requirement to recycle specific critical raw materials in e-waste
  • Use market incentives to spur the economic viability of recovering CRMs and to stimulate the use of recovered CRMs in new products
  • Create platforms where demand for recycled components, materials and CRMs can meet supply
  • Raise awareness of the importance of CRM recycling
  • Consolidate fractions of CRM-rich products into quantities more attractive for recyclers
  • Improve access to information on CRM-rich components and monitor actual recycling
  • Enforce rules around shipment of CRM-rich fractions outside the EU and respect of technical standards along the value chain
  • Integrate CEWASTE normative requirements into the European standard for e-waste treatment (EN 50625 series) and make the whole set legally binding
  • Support more targeted private investments in new technology research and development

Read more in the final public report.