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How innovation can boost the recovery of e-waste


E-waste generated by end-of-life electrical and electronic equipment (telephones, televisions, computers, etc.) is the fastest growing of all forms of waste in terms of volume worldwide. According to the United Nations, it will increase by 33%, to reach 65.4 million tonnes by 2017. Yet, just 15–20% of such waste is currently recycled. But that could all be about to change. Innovations and patent applications for methods of recycling and recovering e-waste are increasing in all corners of the world.

Waste electrical and electronic equipment contains a complex mix of highly dangerous materials and noble metals. These include cadmium, mercury, lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and plastics such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC). But these forms of e-waste also contain materials such as copper, tin, cobalt, silver, gold and platinum. On account of it being environmentally friendly and/or economically profitable, the recovery of such materials is attracting increasing interest: according to a report published by the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation), the number of patent applications filed in this field has risen sharply since 1990.

Credits: ©SUEZ environnement – T. Duvivier

Among the most prolific names are the leading Japanese companies in consumer electronics. A sign that illustrates the growing value of e-waste in recent years on account of the parallel supply chain for metals that it represents. This is particularly the case for rare earth metals (e.g. lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium) used in DVD players, phosphorescent screens, speakers and other hard drives in relation to which the WIPO has observed a surge in patent applications. The reason is simple: as the market for extracting these precious metals is 90% Chinese and their export is heavily regulated, leading American, Japanese and European electronics manufacturers are intensifying their efforts to find other solutions.

Yet, the patents go beyond the invention of new processes for extracting the “gold” from e-waste. Innovations can also relate to the collection of products, their dismantling, the sorting of materials, or the ability to give them a second life. An American company, for example, has developed a kiosk that recycles telephones, touchscreen tablets and other MP3 players. After gathering information about the product, the kiosk offers a purchase price to its owner. If the owner accepts the offer, they simply need to place their device in the kiosk and take the cash distributed.

Credits: ©SUEZ environnement – P. AIMAR

In Italy, a team of university researchers has designed a mobile recycling machine to allow small recyclers to extract precious metals from e-waste that had previously ended up in the bin. In Togo, a research project that won an award at the latest Netexplo trade fair in February, and which was also included in the world’s 10 most promising digital innovations, is a circular economy model: it aims to use electronic waste to manufacture 3D printers costing $100 which will enable the development of FabLabs throughout Africa.
Last example: Rainforest Connection. Another project recognised at Netexplo, this innovation combines recycling with nature conservation. Smartphones that have reached the end of their life are connected to a solar receiver and positioned high up in the tree tops, enabling them to detect illegal logging operations within a one kilometre radius in just five minutes, using the device’s in-built microphone. Tested in Sumatra, this warning system will be deployed in Indonesia, the Amazon rainforest and Africa to protect the most endangered forests.

These innovations ultimately contribute to industrialising a whole recycling and recovery sector that had previously been largely managed by the informal economy in Asian countries where 80% of non-recycled e-waste is still exported.