A Challenge for the Electronics Industry – Creating Closed Cycles
WEEE is a challenge on a global level. Worn-out products and gadgets lying unused are a growing global problem. Far too few of these are recycled. Most end up in the bin. This is a problem, partly because toxic substances become major environmental hazards when they end up in nature, and partly because not recovering valuable metals and other important raw materials is a terrible waste. Consequently, the next major challenge for this industry is creating closed-loop recycling systems.
The Responsibilities of the Electronics Industry
For many appliances, the production phase is what causes most of the environmental damage. A result of low collection rates and inefficient materials recovery is that unnecessarily large amounts of new materials are used in production, which has a negative impact on local as well as global eco systems.
Today, WEEE is the fastest growing waste stream. As the world’s population keeps growing and people’s standard of living improves, so do the number of electronic products. We are talking about some 50 million tonnes of WEEE every year. From a global perspective, Sweden is a small but important player. With El-Kretsen leading the way, Sweden has created a system which according to statistics recovers materials from over 80 per cent of the WEEE collected. This is a world-class achievement, but even so it must still be improved. Also, we need to work on recovering every single item produced. We won’t rest until every scrap of WEEE is collected for recycling. At the same time, it’s not enough simply collecting as much WEEE as possible; we also need to recycle as much WEEE as possible.
Why Not Recycle Everything?
You may wonder why we don’t recycle everything. The two main reasons can be found within the areas of technology and finance. The fewer and purer the components in our electronics are, the simpler the recycling process becomes. The end result is high-quality recycled materials. Over time, the recycling industry has created a process based on beating or crushing waste products into bits and then separating the materials. Iron, aluminium, copper, plastics, glass etc. are separated through different processes based on magnets, optics, density, machines and sorting by hand. This is becoming more and more difficult as laminated plastics and ever-thinner metal alloys are becoming increasingly common. We also see more electronic components integrated in new materials like textiles.
Today, almost all metals are recovered, albeit not always back to their original form. You might say that certain metals are recovered, but with a reduction in quality. This is often metals used in small quantities and mixed with other metals into what is known as “alloys”, which are common in circuit boards, among other things. The same thing goes for plastic, where every new additive changes the properties of the product. This also affects the possibility for the material to be recovered and restored to its “pure” original state.
Alloys and Plastics – Our Number One Challenge
There is a lot of research into metals and plastics, and numerous projects and tests are being carried out to find new, more efficient ways of dealing with them. Once a technical solution has been found, however, the processes must be financially viable. For example, the cost of the energy required to recover a small quantity of metal from an alloy may actually exceed the value of the material recovered, which means the financial aspect can’t be overlooked. Even if we are all agreed that it’s better to use recycled materials, we need the financial incentive to actually get there.
In Sweden, where district heating is largely produced using household waste, at least the plastic we collect that isn’t suitable for materials recovery still contribute by heating our homes. But even if energy recovery is making the most of the energy content of a product, it isn’t a viable part of tomorrow’s circular society. In a circular society, materials have to be recovered and reused to as large a degree as possible. The only reason to escape the circular loop should be because the material no longer constitutes a useful material resource. As the recycling rate of plastics is still low, this makes the increasing proportion of plastic in electronics a particularly difficult challenge. Together with the rest of the value chain, the electronics industry has to develop better and more efficient methods of recovering the growing amounts of plastic – and it needs to start at the design and production phase.
El-Kretsen – ready to inspire
We are constantly improving our own processes. This forward drive is deeply rooted in politics, with those who set targets and in the world of standardization. But our efforts can only reach a small proportion of the global WEEE, no matter how far we get, which is why being a source of inspiration to others is also a vital part of our job. Our ability to influence others is what truly decides whether we make a real difference or not.
Producer responsibility has become a popular tool all over the world, and has been introduced in all EU countries. In Sweden this is a well-established concept, and many countries that are now introducing producer responsibility look at the Swedish model. Sweden’s reputation as an avid recycling nation with a focus on environmental concerns is also well established and backed up by recycling statistics.