Efficient Circular Recycling System Method To Deal with Rare Element Waste

How many mobile phones have you bought in your lifetime?  Where are they now?  Apart from the plastics and glass what else makes up a phone?  One of the answers is rare earth metals which are mined in small operations around the globe.  These metals are difficult to extract and process and when they’re mined, that’s it, they’re gone.

How about laptops?  Hair dryers?  All electronics products use metals which must be mined. According to the Minerals Education Coalition, a baby born in the US today will use up 539 lbs of zinc, 903 lbs of lead and 985 lbs of copper during his or her lifetime.  Copper is running out, with demand outstripping supply, leading to dramatic price increases.

One of the challenges facing the recycling of e-products is the speed of innovation. Smartphones are released in an unrelenting torrent of new designs and capabilities; while the diversity of technology increases by its inherent nature, seemingly infinitely.  Recycling of new tech does happen, but it’s labour intensive, haphazard and not viewed as part of the manufacturing system.

Circular Economy

Circular economy is an industrial system that aims to avoid waste through the design of optimised cycles of products, components and materials by keeping them at their highest utility and value; it’s a perfect match for e-products which tend to use rare elements that are of high economic and environmental value and vulnerable to supply disruption.

A circular economy covers the entire lifecycle of a product, with the aim of narrowing and closing resource loops.  Current practises are based on the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive which needs to be aligned with the European Commission’s Circular Economy Strategy.  Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark have put forward an improved system that is simple, comprehensive and just might succeed.

What Are The Challenges?

  • End of Life (EoL) and manufacturing systems are separate
  • Lack of material oriented perspective (reuse, refurbishment and remanufacturing not encouraged)
  • Lack of a comprehensive product family approach (PFA)
  • generalized ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach (different devices shredded together, without making use of device components)

Solution: Proper Characterisation Of Devices

Devices are characterized intrinsically (function, design features, material composition) or extrinsically (maturity level and lifespan, price range).  This information is used to decide on how a device or its components are recycled and where it or its components enter the manufacturing loop.

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