How Urban Mining and the Use of Soluboard Can Combat Rising Global E-Waste Levels

(Photograph: Mazuma)

The e-waste numbers reported by publications such as The Global E-Waste Monitor continue to be inconceivable, with over 54 million tonnes of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) being produced every year around the world. Over one million tonnes of this is generated by the UK alone which is enough to fill Wembley Stadium more than six times (Source: Mazuma). As difficult as this is to comprehend, it is the fact that e-waste is growing at a rate of 2.5 million tonnes every year which is truly alarming. The same report also suggests that only 17.4% of the recorded e-waste is collected for recycling.

The lack of infrastructure surrounding the recovery of electronic waste is a problem that the public is now voicing their concerns around, with a recent study conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) confirming that 73% of people believe it is the responsibility of governments to urgently restructure the e-waste recycling system.

Surveying ten thousand people across ten different countries, the survey follows the RSC 2019 Precious Elements campaign that raised public awareness of the raw materials required to manufacture everyday products such as laptops and mobile phones. The success of the campaign subsequently resulted in the RSC being invited to present evidence at the Environmental Audit Committee e-waste inquiry in 2020 which was previously reported on by Jiva here.

The primary conclusion that can be drawn from the RSC’s second survey is that the appetite for increased responsibility and transparency in the electronics and electricals markets is clear. The results state that 60% of consumers will consider the environmental credentials of a product prior to purchasing, making them more likely to purchase a sustainable offering.

The ongoing issue of a throwaway culture combined with planned obsolescence has also been exposed by the report in regards to when a product malfunctions, with 68% of people finding it too difficult to repair and 71% finding it too expensive. Many products that would have once had a significantly longer lifespan will now be destined for landfill, with close to 60% of the survey group having doubts that their local authorities are well equipped to collect and recycle their obsolete devices.

Professor Tom Welton, the President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said the following: “Not only do we need governments to overhaul recycling infrastructure and tech businesses to invest in more sustainable manufacturing practices, we need greater public and private investment in research … to progress methods of separating critical raw materials from electronic waste for recycling purposes.”

With the repercussions of geopolitical unrest showing no signs of slowing down, now is a more important time than ever to identify alternative methods of sourcing high value raw materials. The conflict in Ukraine has resulted in nickel values spiking and global demand for lithium as a result of the growing electric vehicle market means the material will increase in value by 500% between 2021 and 2022.

The quantities of precious metals being used by the electronics industry is also impacting other sectors, with even Britain’s Royal Mint looking to alternative methods of sourcing gold, silver, copper and palladium. Whilst it is a huge step in the right direction for more efficient recycling of precious metals from PCB waste, it does present the question of ‘what happens to the PCB substrate waste?’

The work being done by Jiva with Soluboard is a prime example of how the extraction of high value raw materials can be improved alongside the responsible disposal of the natural fibres within the PCB substrate. Processing Jiva’s water soluble PCBs through Jiva’s novel recycling process will improve the quality of precious metals recovered from PCBs; this is due to the removal of incineration from the recycling process which is known to damage and affect the value of the metals. The European Copper Institute (ECI) has also stated that recycling copper, a material found in high quantities in PCBs, uses up to 85% less energy than primary production of virgin material.