Back to the factory instead of in the garbage

This article was published in the HZDR magazine "Discovered" 2/2017.

Developments in waste management are supposed to head towards a circular economy: in accordance with this ideal, all the material used in manufacturing a product should be recyclable at the end of their lifespan. But a lot still has to happen before we get that far. As studies have shown, when it comes to electronic waste, modular construction and smart sorting would help to recycle valuable metals.

Metallschrott ©Copyright: Lya_Cattel/ istock

The recycling share of electronic waste is still falling considerably short of the ideal of a circular economy. Photo: Lya_Cattel/ istock Download

Today, nearly everyone has a smartphone. Many people buy a new one every two or three years and the old one then often lies around in a drawer for even longer. But what to do with it? Although the devices contain valuable materials, especially rare metals, not enough smartphones are appropriately recycled. Some even end up – quite illegally – in household waste. In Germany, the aim, in theory, is to establish a circular economy. But in 2014, the recycling share of total materials used was only 17 percent. The figures were much the same for electronic waste, which includes tablets, laptops, PCs and numerous other everyday devices: we are still falling pretty short of this ideal.

A research project on smartphones illustrates the potential of a circular economy for electronic devices, but also its limits. The project was headed by Markus Reuter, Director of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology. Together with his colleague Antoinette van Schaik from the Dutch company MARAS B.V., he tested the recycling capability of “Fairphone-2”. This model, produced by the firm Fairphone, is specifically built with transparent production and reusability in mind. For this purpose, the developers constructed it using seven modules.

In 2016, the firm approached Schaik and Reuter because they were interested in their simulation software which can simulate entire raw material paths – including the recycling process. The software can reveal how much of a substance can be recovered by various different recycling methods.

Modular construction ideal for recycling

In the study, the researchers tested three recycling routes: the first involved melting down the Fairphone-2, the second, disassembling the modules, and the third, shredding. “If, all in all, you want to minimize the damage, the module method of recycling scores best,” says Markus Reuter, summarizing the results. “Using this technique, substances like gold, copper, silver, cobalt, nickel, palladium, platinum, gallium, indium and zinc can largely be recycled. But even with the disassembly option you can only recover a limited amount of many substances – for example, the metals tantalum and tungsten.”

The crux in electronic devices like smartphones is the incredibly close chemical and physical connection of the raw materials. “Many parts are stuck together, some substances coated, others attached by electrolysis, yet others are alloys,” explains Reuter. This makes recycling much more difficult. And even what is technically possible is not always sensible. In some metals the concentration is simply too low to warrant recycling.

In the same study, the environmental impact of the methods for recycling the Fairphone-2 was tested. In addition to material wastage, energy requirements, climate impact and the handling of recyclable or combustible plastic were evaluated. The modular method came out on top in this test, too, and is consequently the clear recommendation of the study.

The story of the Fairphone-2 was a “great thing”, according to Christiane Schnepel, head of Product Stewardship and Waste Management at the Umweltbundesamt (UBA) in Dessau. It considered the entire supplier chain from the point of view of sustainability, says the engineer, full of praise. But Schnepel points out that in addition to smartphones, one should not forget all the other electronic equipment which contains similar precious and special metals.

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