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Rare earth dependency presents real opportunities for recyclers

The need to close the loop on rare earth metals and a bigger role for the recycling industry in sourcing these key elements have been highlighted by the coronavirus crisis, the E-waste World conference has been told.

The global scrap sector is growing and projected to exceed 74.5 million tonnes by 2030 with the average e-waste generated per person worldwide amounting to 7.5kg per year, delegates heard. However, illegal waste exports indicated major holes in the circular economy.

Speaking at the conference, director general of the WEEE Forum Pascal Leroy argued an economy’s dependence on imported raw materials was an issue of great concern. ‘The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to question the electronics value chain. We urgently need to close the loop for rare earth metals. If we do things right, recycling can be a major source of these high-tech metals.’

As an example, Leroy says, the EU gets 78% of its lithium from Chile. ‘We turn to Brazil for 85% of niobium while the US satisfies 88% of our beryllium demand. Russia holds 40% of our palladium, 92% of iridium comes from South Africa and 93% of magnesium is mined in China.’

He believes some member states wrongly assume that extended producer responsibility means ‘exclusive’ producer responsibility for manufacturers and brands, taking the pressure off governments.

Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network echoed these sentiments, saying ‘There are holes in the circular economy. We released a report about this last year, following an investigation that tracked EU shipments of used electronics via GPS.’

The products were deployed from ten different countries, including Germany. Instead of being processed at municipal waste facilities within Europe, many ended up in Asia. ‘The beauty of GPS tracking is that it is highly accurate. This method very clearly shows the path of the waste, and its precise final destination, right down to the square metre of land where it sits.’

Though the report and documentary-style video footage was well received and widely covered by the media, Puckett laments that little has changed and believes the pandemic has shifted the focus elsewhere.

‘We received a photo from Malaysian customs a few days ago showing a container with shredded electronics from France. The material wasn’t in the best shape,’ Puckett says. ’Exporting countries don’t take this issue seriously enough. Even developed countries like the US have zero legislation when it comes to shipping electronic waste overseas.

He believes many people think the circular economy was all about shipping our waste to foreign countries. ‘They see the Basel Convention as an obstacle rather than a protective measure to help realise a truly sustainable waste management infrastructure. It’s truly mind-boggling.’

He concluded: ‘Please remember that the circular economy is more than just recycling on steroids.’

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