Resource scarcity and the rise of the circular economy are inspiring businesses, industry associations and governments to develop new ways to recover precious and critical raw materials (CRMs) from waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The Urban Mine Platform, a database of valuable materials for “urban mining,” is the public and private sectors’ latest attempt to take on the challenge.
A product of the European Union’s Prospecting Secondary Raw Materials in the Urban Mine and Mining Waste (ProSUM) project, the Platform presents the flows of precious and base metals and CRMs in products in use and throughout their journey to end of life. It draws data from over 800 documents and databases from the EU’s 28 member states to create “a state of the art knowledge base” which policymakers and investors can use to increase the supply and recycling of secondary raw materials.
“Three years in the making, this consolidated database is the world’s first ‘one stop shop’ knowledge data platform on CRMs in waste products — easy to access, structured, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, up-to-date, impartial, broad in scope, standardized and harmonized, and verifiable,” said Pascal Leroy, Secretary General of the WEEE Forum, a Brussels-based nonprofit and ProSUM project coordinator.
The EU, Norway and Switzerland generated around 10.5 million tons of WEEE in 2016 — about 23 percent of the world total. In addition, two million tons of batteries and some seven to eight million tons of EU vehicles reach their end-of-life annually. According to a recent ProSUM report, a smartphone contains around 40 different critical raw materials, with a concentration of gold 25 to 30 times that of the richest primary gold ores. Additionally, an increasing number of products contain precious resources such as neodymium (vital for making permanent magnets in motors), indium (used in flat panel displays) and cobalt (used in rechargeable batteries).
However, only about 30 percent of e-waste is recycled, while an estimated 40 percent ends up in landfill. This ultimately means billions of dollars in valuable materials are going to waste. Recovering and recycling this material back into the production cycle will not only prevent significant environmental damage, but also bolster a dwindling supply of CRMs and rare earth elements (REEs).
The Platform’s dynamic charts offer detailed data and market intelligence on the number and type of products on the market, in stock (in use and hibernating) and generated as waste; the composition of key components materials and elements in batteries, electronic and electrical equipment and vehicles; and waste flows showing the amount collected and estimates for small batteries and EEE in unsorted municipal waste.
The data presented on the Platform will provide critical industry insight to investors and give policymakers better intelligence on the supplies of raw materials by showing the stocks and flows of products containing high amounts of specific materials.
“Until now, data on such critical raw materials have been produced by a variety of institutions, including government agencies, universities, NGOs and industry, with the information scattered across various databases in different formats and difficult to compare or aggregate and often representing an outdated snapshot for a certain year only. The ProSUM effort helps remedy that problem and enables the identification of so-called ‘hotspots’ — the largest stocks of specific materials,” said Jaco Huisman, scientific coordinator for ProSUM.
The Platform also allows quantities of WEEE to be mapped over time, showing the trends in materials in the urban mine. ProSUM hopes that access to better intelligence about changes in product types and material content will help drive up recycling rates and recovery.
“We initiated this project because there has been a real dearth of data and intelligence to properly assess the material recovery potential of the complex products which make up WEEE. This work is a significant step forward in understanding the potential for recycling, now and in the future. We hope that this work coupled with the study we are undertaking with Lancaster University to update UK WEEE flows will help us in the UK to optimize WEEE recycling, economically and environmentally,” said Sarah Downes, Environmental Affair Manager of WEEE compliance scheme REPIC and a ProSUM project leader.