Back to the factory instead of in the garbage

The pitfalls of sorting waste

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The "Fairphone-2" is built with transparent production and reusability in mind. Photo: Fairphone Download

When electronic devices have to be scrapped, the question has to be asked as to how scrap of this kind should be disposed of. In Germany, this is regulated by the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act, known as “ElektroG”, which seeks to protect the environment from the harmful substances in the devices. The law is, moreover, supposed to ensure that as many resources are recovered as possible. ElektroG stipulates, for example, that traders of a certain size upwards are obliged to take back old devices in order to channel them into recycling.

To ensure that the disposal companies concerned deal with the old electrical equipment wisely, new handling regulations are on the drawing board. For this purpose, the UBA – together with 200 representatives of industry, institutes, environmental associations and authorities – drew up a list of recommendations in an open process launched in November 2015, Schnepel reports. It has identified several typical concerns, such as the meaningful sorting and disposal of harmful substances in scrap.

Take the recommendation on photovoltaic modules: they are supposed to be separated from demolition waste and then break-proofed for the transfer to final disposal. Some PV panels are coated with toxic cadmium telluride, which makes special demands on the disposal process.

Another recommendation deals with the circuit boards in electronic equipment. Concentrations of a relatively large number of precious and special metals are to be found on circuit boards in hard disks, routers, cell phones and computers. The best way of recovering these metals is by removing the circuit boards before the devices are shredded. Then this separated “fraction” of circuit boards can be prepared for recovery using specific metallurgical processes which release the valuable metals. If, on the other hand, the devices are completely shredded, the precious and special metals end up with the plastics and are no longer recoverable.

Rare metals in electronic waste

Environmental protection is not the only reason why the circular economy is an objective. In a country with relatively few raw materials like Germany, the efficient handling of resources is another motivation. In the long term, economic growth should be decoupled from the use of resources. Consequently, last year, the government updated the “German Resource Efficiency Programme” to 2020. At EU level, as well, efforts are being made to reduce dependency on the import of critical metals.

The idea that you can only extract metals from ores became obsolete years ago. Two comparisons demonstrate just how big the recycling potential really is: Germany’s total annual waste production contains more copper than is extracted in the world’s largest copper mine. And a tonne of cell phones boasts roughly 50 times as much gold as a tonne of auriferous ore.

For years, substances like cobalt, lithium, indium, gallium and rare earth metals such as neodymium have been a particular focus of thinking on the circular economy. Not least as a result of the energy transition, which means that many renewable energy generation plants have to be built, they are in ever greater demand. In many cases, however, there are no, or no viable, methods of recovering the relevant substances from the scrap.

Lithium, for example, can be found in batteries in many devices, and electromobility is likely to increase the demand for lithium yet more. Chile and Bolivia are home to two-thirds of the resources of this metal and they could be exhausted in the foreseeable future. It would, therefore, be helpful if the lithium in batteries could be recycled. So far, this has been complicated and expensive. Recently, however, researchers at TU Bergakademie Freiberg seem to have found a way of applying a new method that could make it possible to recover lithium from batteries at an acceptable cost.

Significantly more critical would seem to be the supply of cobalt, which is often used for battery cathodes. That was the conclusion drawn from an analysis of lithium-ion battery supply chains conducted by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Currently, cobalt is largely mined in the Republic of Congo. For this metal, at least, however, there are already commercially worthwhile recycling processes.

Just these few examples clearly illustrate how big and complex the challenge of changing to a circular economy really is – particularly in the case of electronic scrap. This is why Markus Reuter wants to see a more realistic assessment of the potential of the circular economy. He likes to compare a smartphone with a cup of sweetened latte: “There is no economic way of retransforming it into coffee grounds, water, milk and sugar. It will never be possible to recycle a hundred percent of the material in complex devices. But we can do a lot better than we are at the moment.”

Author: Sven Titz


Fairphone’s report on recyclability – does modularity contribute to better recovery of materials, 2017

A. van Schaik, M.A. Reuter: Recycling indices visualizing the performance of the circular economy, World of Metallurgy – Erzmetall, 2017

M.A. Reuter, A. van Schaik, J. Gediga: Simulation-based design for resource efficiency of metal production and recycling systems: Cases – copper production and recycling, e-waste (LED lamps) and nickel pig iron, International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 2015 (DOI 10.1007/s11367-015-0860-4)


Prof. Markus Reuter (HZDR)

Dr. Antoinette van Schaik (Material Recycling and Sustainability (MARAS) B.V.)