High-Tech ores: towards a circular economy

Antoine Delers
28 June 2019
Digitalisation is becoming an increasingly important part of our world. Technological innovations not only transform the way we live, but also bring disastrous consequences for our planet such as conflicts over mining, waste production, pollution, and so on. More than ever, we need a circular economy based on the recycling of materials.

What are the risks of ore extraction?

About 70 different materials are required to produce a smartphone, including nearly 50 metals. Some of the current most popular rare metals include tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold. These raw materials are essential to the high-tech industry (IT, robotics, phones, etc.) and to renewable energies (such as photovoltaic panels).

However, the mining and extraction of these minerals carry inherent risks for the planet and human beings. Ore extraction (and the pollution associated herewith) accelerates climate change. Among other things, it consumes a great deal of water and energy: on average, about 1,500 litres of water are needed to make a computer. Also, the workforce in the mines and quarries where these ores are available is often exploited, as there is generally no social security cover for workers. It is also not uncommon for children to be sent into the tunnels, which is contrary to the International Labour Organization's (ILO) decent work policy.

In Africa, there is believed to be an estimated 27 conflicts related to the extraction of natural resources.

According to Ben Cramer, a researcher with the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (GRIP), in Africa, there is believed to be an estimated 27 conflicts related to the extraction of natural resources. The proliferation of fragile States and the securing of energy supplies are generating global security risks.

The major global powers are engaged in a new technological and commercial competition in which they appropriate rare land and relocate pollution. The rivalry between Washington and Beijing is becoming more intense and increasing militarisation. Nest to a risk of armed conflict, global resources could get depleted.

 

The circular economy: a solution?

According to Éric Pirard of the University of Liège, for the past few years, the digital and renewable energy industry has built its economic model on its innovative and, presumably, ecological dimension. However, in order to reduce the pressure of products on resources and the environment, we need solutions that could have a positive impact from a social, economic and environmental point of view.

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Urban mines

What if rare metals were to be found in our country? Present in electronic objects, photovoltaic panels, or batteries, precious metals constitute unexploited resources, known as "urban mines". The recycling of high-tech waste could be an alternative to the extraction of these metals. By reintroducing them back into the circuit, a truly circular economy could be installed.

The circular economy aims to manage commodities in a careful and sensible way in order to obtain the best return, using the fewest resources and recycling as much as possible. The production process becomes a cycle that starts with the supply of raw materials and ends with the recycling of products at the end of their life. The ultimate goal is to become "100% recyclable". Even with a 95% recycling rate, half of the materials disappears after 14 production cycles.

To enable this transition to a circular economy, it is necessary to overcome four major challenges:

  1. Feed the cycle”, i.e. adopt an ecological approach to raw material procurement;
  2. Optimise the cycle” by reducing energy for manufacturing and recycling, rethinking design, and facilitating repairs and recycling;
  3. Slow down the cycle” by increasing the life span of products;
  4. Close the cycle” by optimizing recycling (collection, fragmentation, sorting, etc.).

For example, manufacturing a traditional Italian coffee pot requires much less material than an espresso machine. Rethinking design not only requires simpler assembly, but also the use of recyclable materials. The use of non-essential components should be avoided as much as possible. Also, single-use products, such as non-refillable pens, plastic tableware and lighters, generate a huge amount of non-recyclable waste, which illustrates why it necessary to increase the sustainability of the products. The same is true for cars, which have an average life span of just a few years, not to mention phones that usually need to be replaced every two years.

In 2018, Recupel collected more than 117,000 tonnes of waste from electrical and electronic equipment.

A bulldozer transports electronic waste on the Galloo site (Menen).
© Recupel

Recupel, a Belgian recycling company

Recupel is a Belgian collective system that organises the collection and recycling of waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The association’s main objective is to protect the environment by collecting and recycling used appliances as efficiently as possible. Electrical equipment contains hazardous materials and is also an important source of raw materials. According to Els Verberckmoes, Treatment Manager at Recupel, in 2018, Recupel collected more than 117,000 tonnes of such waste.

To recycle your old electrical appliances, you can go to different reuse centres (Les Petits Riens, for example), collection points (more than 2,600 stores in Belgium), container parks, but also to actual and online stores when you buy a new appliance. The devices and equipment collected are then transported to a storage and sorting centre. If they still work, they will be given a new lease of life. Otherwise, Recupel transports them to depollution and recycling plants managed by Umicore, Indaver and Galloo in Belgium.

A man is dismantling an electronic device.
© Recupel

These companies eliminate harmful substances (e. g. CFC gases from refrigerators), extract "noble" metals such as gold for reuse, and then shred and dismantle the remaining equipment. Finally, the materials (iron, copper, plastic, etc.) are sorted: electrical and electronic equipment manufacturers will reuse the recyclables materials.

This recycling process is essential as it is much more interesting to recycle gold in devices than it is to extract it from mines. One tonne of mobile phones provides 300g of gold, while one tonne of ore provides only 3g of gold.

To better understand Recupel's collection and recycling process, watch this short video: The Recupel WEEE-recycling.

50 times more

E-waste contains up to 50 times more valuable metals and minerals than ores from the mines.

 

65 billion euros

The value of the metals present in all unused devices is estimated at 65 billion euros!

 

3 to 6%

The circular economy can generate a growth of 3 to 6%, as well as thousands of jobs.

 

50 million tons

Every year we produce 50 million tons of e-waste worldwide. 4,500 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower!

 

Source: Recupel

The information in this article was collected at a seminar organised by ARES, the umbrella organisation of French-speaking Belgian universities, responsible for development cooperation at a university level.

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