EU’s ‘Urban Mining’ Tool Finds Value in Electronic Trash

Expert organizations have united to create the first European database of valuable materials available for ‘urban mining’ from scrap vehicles, spent batteries, waste electronic and electrical equipment, and mining wastes. (WEEE Ireland)

(CN) – The more than 20 million tons of electronic waste and scrap vehicles discarded throughout Europe each year can be “urban mined” for valuable materials and to reduce pollution and costs to industry, according to a new report.

The findings, published Wednesday, are documented in the Prospecting Secondary Raw Materials in the Urban Mine and Mining Wastes (ProSUM) project partners’ new Urban Mine Platform – the world’s first database of discarded valuable materials that can be collected and reused.

The database illuminates and maps the loads of secondary critical raw materials recovered or lost throughout the 28 European Union member states, Norway and Switzerland (EU28+2) annually, revealing both staggering waste and straightforward strategies for efficiently recycling these trashed byproducts.

Batteries, phones, appliances, computers and other e-products – not including vehicles – thrown away in 2016 alone contained more than $67 billion worth of high-value materials.

The Urban Mine Platform features data for materials and elements in high abundance in these waste products, primarily base and precious metals and critical raw materials.

Urban mining of such materials is vital for limiting dependence on non-EU suppliers and securing manufacturing supplies going forward, according to ProSUM.

The project’s partners crafted from more than 800 databases and source documents “a state of the art knowledge base, using best available data in a harmonized and updateable format, which allows the recycling industry and policymakers to make more informed investment and policy decisions to increase the supply and recycling of secondary raw materials,” according to the report.

The new database contains “all readily available data on market inputs, stocks in use and hibernated, compositions and waste flows of electrical and electronic equipment (EEE), vehicles and batteries for all EU-28 member states plus Switzerland and Norway,” the authors write.

Report co-author and ProSUM project coordinator Pascal Leroy highlighted the value of the Urban Mine Platform.

“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 Leroy, who is also the head of the Belgium-based non-profit Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Forum.

In the report, the partners state that “if all of the EEE in stock in households, businesses and public space was shared out between each EU28+2 inhabitant, each person would own close to 44 EEE products plus another 12 (energy-saving) lamps and 33 light fittings, which are counted separately. In addition, there is 0.50 vehicle per person in the fleet. In vehicles, electronics and other applications, there are another 40 batteries in stock per person.”

Each EU resident would own about 550 pounds of electronics – 3.5 times the average weight of an adult – as well as roughly 37.5 pounds of batteries and nearly 1,350 pounds of vehicle.

The trend toward more lighter and smarter products has affected raw material consumption.

The paper notes that a smartphone contains about 40 different critical raw materials and a concentration of gold 25 to 30 times higher than the richest primary gold ores. Mining trashed e-products produces 80 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than primary mining operations.

ProSUM has shown that a growing number of products feature precious resources like neodymium – vital for creating permanent magnets in motors, cobalt – found in rechargeable batteries, and indium – used in flat-panel displays.

The Urban Mine Platform reveals the stocks and flows of these products.

“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,” said report co-author Jaco Huisman, a scientific coordinator with ProSUM.

“The ProSUM effort helps remedy that problem, and enables the identification of so-called ‘hotspots’ – the largest stocks of specific materials.”

The project outcomes are included in the European Commission’s Raw Materials Information System in order to establish a more structured and complete repository of data related to primary and secondary sources consumed in the EU, which are relevant for policymakers, manufacturers and other interested parties.

The partners have also developed detailed recommendations for crafting higher-quality data and continuously updating the database. Their suggestions include further quantifying stocks and flow in the urban mine, improving the description of critical raw materials in products and waste, expanding the database’s scope to include recoverable materials in other product streams, and continuing to harmonize data.

“Better knowledge of amounts and content of critical raw material is fundamental for both research in the field of recycling and as a background material to convince a board in a recycling company to fund investment in recycling capacity,” said Christer Forsgren, chief technology officer of Stena Metall, a recycling company based in Sweden. “Legislators need similar information to develop for society efficient extended producer liability systems.

“The database developed by the ProSUM project is a very good start and one step closer to a more circular economy.”

 

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