Wealth from Waste project looks at e-waste recycling

Waste Management Review talks to Nick Florin from the University of Technology Sydney about the billions of dollars’ worth of metal trapped in the waste stream and what needs to be done in order to capture them.

Australia has been blessed with bountiful resources which are one of the country’s primary exports.

According to Austrade’s 2017 export performance report, minerals dominated the lion’s share of export values. Australia is also one of the largest producers of aluminium, nickel, copper, iron ore and zinc.

These metals are used in an array of different products, from soft drink cans, to mobile phones to washing machines. These products are often made up of a mixture of valuable metals and minerals.

In an effort to better understand the complex landscape of recapturing this value, five universities came together to research the topic in the Wealth from Waste project.

According to the report, domestic processing of metal scrap only occurs to 15 per cent of metal consumed in Australia, even though it is possible to see numbers as high as 50 per cent. This kind of processing would be worth around $6 billion to the Australian economy per year.

Similarly, research from the Modelling Metal Flows in the Australian Economy estimates there is the potential to recover 27 per cent of steel from the waste stream and 33 per cent of aluminium, which could be reformed into new shapes and products with higher market demand.

Nick Florin, Research Director at University Technology Sydney Institute for Sustainable Futures, was one of the researchers in the Wealth from Waste project. 

The research analysed groups of metals to determine how much value could be extracted from the waste stream. Consumer electronics can contain up to 80 different materials, including gold, which Nick says could make up almost 25 per cent of the value in the electronic waste stream.

“Metallic elements are inherently recyclable as they retain their physical properties and can be reused multiple times. However, in certain combinations, where metals have been mixed together, they cannot be easily unmixed and this puts a limitation on the potential to reuse and recycle them,” Nick says.

“As products become more complex, we have found the reprocessing capabilities are not keeping pace with technological development, highlighting a need to redesign for reuse and recycling.”

Nick says Australian society depends on metal and as sustainable technology is developed this will continue to be the case.

“To create solar panels, wind turbines and batteries to store renewable energy, metals like lithium and cobalt are in high demand,” Nick explains.

“With growing demands and conventional ore grades also declining in quality, it means more energy is needed to create and process the metals. At the moment, there is a growing stockpile of metal resources that could possibly be captured with the right infrastructure.”

The amount of waste metal generated in Australia has grown from 2002 and 2011, from about five to six million tonnes or around 270 kilograms per person.

 Another major roadblock to recycling metal is the geographical size of Australia itself. The distance between points in the supply chain has led to higher collection costs compared to other nations.

“High collection costs due to low population density for a material that has a relatively low intrinsic value on a per unit basis creates significant economic barriers. Technological barriers also exist, as products containing some of the most valuable minerals are not designed to facilitate remanufacturing,” Nick says.

LASTING LONGER

Nick explains that extending the lifespan of a product before it is thrown away increases the material efficiency of the metals in an object without needing additional energy to reproduce it via recycling.

He points to a recent research paper from the Wealth from Waste cluster, “Slowing” and “narrowing” the flow of metals for consumers goods: evaluating opportunities and barriers, which that reports the strategy for extending product lifespan is important for products with high environmental impacts during the production phase.

“The trend of shortening lifespans of products over time is due to the behaviours of both producers and consumers: producers aim to sell more products, consumers may desire new products and replace them before they stop working,” the report says.

“Technological obsolescence may also force consumers to purchase a new product sooner.”

Research from the Australia Mobile Telecommunications Association found that the desire for new technology was the biggest reason customers had for upgrading their old phones in 2010 to 2014. 

It found as smartphones have become more common, consumers have been holding onto their phones for longer and upgrading when they become too slow.

“For consumer products with short lifespans such as personal electronics, the majority of the environmental impact occurs in the production phase,” the report says.

“While consumers have low expectations for their lifespans, from an environmental perspective, there is a strong case for extending the product lifespan.”

Nick says there are around 22.5 million mobile phones that have been forgotten in storage in Australia.

“People have a tendency to hoard phones away instead of recycling them when they upgrade, which makes it difficult to recover the valuable resources stored in them,” Nick says.

“Some products like phones could take advantage of a leasing model, where customers pay per month and are more likely to return it when it reaches the end of its life. 

“Incentivising return logistics means products can last longer before being refurbished and sold.”

Nick says that by promoting stakeholder collaboration and new initiatives to improve recovery pathways, the amount of value from waste could be increased.

This article was published in the August issue of Waste Management Review.