Metal Movers: Closing the e-waste loop with EERA

Author Argus

Julie-Ann Adams, CEO, EERA, joins Cristina Belda, Associate Editor to discuss the challenges faced by Europe’s rapidly growing e-waste industry.

Learn how the organisation acts as a voice for electronics reuse, recycling, and re-processing companies. Our guest speaker also highlights environmental sustainability (including eco-design), recycling highly engineered devices and how the critical raw materials act could be a key driver in e-waste recycling.

Experience our price data first hand with a trial of Argus Non-Ferrous Markets for daily pricing and reporting from global non-ferrous markets, including indexation-standard assessments from across minor metals, rare earths, ferro-alloys, base metals and non-ferrous scrap.

Transcript:

Christina: Hello, and welcome to this podcast brought to you by Argus Media, a leading independent provider of energy and commodity pricing information. In this episode of Metals Movers, we'll talk about recycling of e-waste. My name is Cristina Belda. I am associate editor at Argus Media, and I'm joined today by Julie-Ann Adams. She's the CEO of the European Electronics Recycle Association, the voice of waste, electrical and electronic equipment recovery facilities in Europe, with more than 40 members, and thousands of plants and treatment facilities. Hello, Julie-Ann. Thank you for joining us today.

Julie-Ann: Hello. Hello. Yes, and thank you very much for inviting me. Cristina: So, to start with, I'd like to ask you, how are we doing in Europe in terms of recovery of e-waste? Europe ranks first for the most e-waste generated, with 16.2 kilograms per capita. But there are big disparities between countries.

Julie-Ann: Yes. I mean, Europe is doing really well on a global basis, because we have quite good infrastructure and consumer awareness in place. But there are big differences right across Europe. And our point of view is that every citizen has an equal right to the same compliant collection system, the same compliant treatment system, but it is really varied between countries as to how that has been implemented. And part of that issue is that the WEEE Directive, one WEEE Directive, has basically 27 different versions. And so there's a big disparity, as you said, between the countries in terms of how things are collected, how available collection sites are. And it should be equal whether you're in a rural area or you're in a big city, your accessibility should be exactly the same. So, things do need to be improved. But certainly, since I've been in the industry, which is about 22 years now, things have improved, and so we're going in the right direction.

Cristina: Yeah, especially as Europe, it's moving towards a circular economy by 2050, and there are some, the Green Deal and another plans in place for energy transition. What are the more urgent points that we need to address to achieve that circular economy?

Julie-Ann: Yes, that's a really good question. So, secondary raw materials, which are the materials that a recycler ends up with once they have dismantled a product, should be made a primary source and not a sort of secondary thought. So, secondary raw materials, for example, aluminum, copper, plastics, these things are actually happening and are being processed. But generally speaking, if manufacturers can purchase those particular materials elsewhere for a cheaper price, then that's what they will do. Secondary raw materials, however, are a huge benefit to the environment. They've got a lower carbon footprint, they use less water, they use less energy. So, our view is is that secondary raw materials should be the new primary, and primary should only be used, for example, through mining or oil refining, only be used as a secondary one when there aren't enough secondary raw materials. And we fully acknowledge that there aren't enough secondary materials to really support the manufacturing industry on this huge voracious sort of train that we're on, building more and more electronics. But all of these materials are out there, and if there was a bigger market, then there would be better recycling achievements.

Cristina: Do you see that mindset in the industry, that we will be able to have a market of secondary materials that will really help us to achieve the transition, like the urban mining and... Do you see that?

Julie-Ann: Yes. And I think there's certainly... I mean, our members collected over 2.2 million tons in 2022, which is about 50% of everything in Europe. And so, the materials are definitely there. There's a very high recycling achievement of refrigerators, and white goods, and small appliances, and IT, so, anywhere between sort of 70% to 90% can be achieved. So, those materials are available. And I think what's coming, and we're certainly working with OEMs on this, but what's coming is environmental, social, and governance requirements. So, manufacturers will have to start working with companies who have a better environmental or social and corporate governance policy, and are able to work with them in terms of showing them what their carbon footprint is and so on. So, ESG is actually going to hopefully help drive that greater need for secondary raw materials and recycled content, the use of recycled content.

Cristina: And which role plays the product design of the electronics?

Julie-Ann: Absolutely. So, product design is key here. So, there are a lot of regulations regarding, coming in, eco-design, and so forth. And product designers need to start considering what actually happens at the end of life, rather than what they think happens. So, for example, this week, we actually, an EERA member, our President, Kurt, from KMK in Ireland, hosted a visit by an OEM to their facility. And I think they were really impressed with the number of steps that were taken to get to the end product, which was the plastics and the metal, and also so they could see the volumes. So, we're not talking about nice, clean, little boxes coming in. We're talking about containers with 20 tons or with 40 cages with mixed appliances in. And there might be four or five or more of these coming into a site on every day. So, the volumes are enormous. And I think understanding how different it would mean to have a product that the battery can be removed much easier, that any hazardous components can be separated much easier. The plastics to have a single polymer. You know, often, a product could have four or five polymers that are all glued together. That glue also makes a problem in terms of recycling. And the screw sizes, or the screw, the metals that are used, you know, make them all the same. You know, different sizes or whatever, but all of these things would help improve the end of life. And improvements means that the costs are lower, so the manufacturers will benefit in the fullness of time. So, there are, you know, karma. You know, what goes around, comes around.

Cristina: Yeah. It's getting much more difficult though, because, as you say, we have more and more electronics at home. We have wearables and all this new mix of different devices like fridges with a TV. I'm thinking all of these new devices that make things harder.

Julie-Ann: Yes. Much harder. And that's a really...the fridge with a television is a really good example. So, a manufacturer has designed this, and say, your fridge, you've got a television, it can also email you to tell you you're out of milk, and it can connect to your Amazon account and actually buy it for you, and your washing machine and so on. And does that fridge go to a fridge recycling plant first, and the people there have to remove the television? Or does it go to a television recycling plant first and so on? Although it is that there are a few sites, you know, mostly, a fridge plant does fridges, and a TV plant does televisions. So, it's not a consistent one, sort of, treatment line. And so, by understanding that, you know, so that a TV component is easier to pop out and put onto a pallet and go somewhere else, then that's the kind of design issue. Wearables are also an interesting point. And actually, something that's not really been discussed or raised is clothes that have batteries inside them, so that they're designed to tell you what temperature you are or what chemicals you're breathing in, firemen, for example, or where you are on a particular site, all of those things. So, they're mixed with textiles, and that's extremely manual process to try and separate the little batteries and the nano cables. So, it's something which producers need to be aware of, and they also need to be aware of that they are obligated, because they're placing a product on the market that is electronic, and they're placing product on the market that contains batteries. So, they're sort of governed by those two EPR regulations.

Cristina: Yeah, definitely. Speaking about batteries and critical raw materials that are also vital for energy transition, and China dominate most of these critical raw materials. To which extent can Europe reduce this dependency, by using more recycling or by pushing recycling?

Julie-Ann: Yes. I mean, the Critical Raw Materials Act, is draft at the moment, is an ideal route to encourage better recycling of electronic products that contain critical materials. And EERA was part of a consortium in 2019, the CEWASTE Project, that actually investigated critical materials in a whole range. And China, of course, very recently banned gallium and germanium from being exported. And these can be found in PV panels. And obviously, these are now coming back in very large volumes over the period of time that they've been in use now. And so we need to invest and innovate in recycling systems that can recover those. But there needs to be a market. If it's cheaper to still buy those materials from outside of Europe, then people aren't going to go to a recycler and go, "Yes, we want to invest in your company, but we don't wanna pay as much." Because recyclers are private companies or public companies who have to look at their capital expenditure and what they're likely to get in terms of a return. They're not going to do this without being able to charge somebody or being able to sell the material at the end. So, that needs to be supported. EERA have always said that in the next WEEE review, which we're hoping will be a regulation, that rather than having just flat recycling targets, that actually there should also be a target for CRM recovery, because that, again, will encourage the recovery, and the processes, and the investment within Europe. And that's something, the two, the WEEE regulation, we hope, and the Critical Material Act, we hope will nest together like a jigsaw, along with the Green Deal and circular economy.

Cristina: Absolutely. And because we're talking about regulation, what politicians should do, what do consumers can do? How do we stimulate consumer action as well, to be part of this circular economy?

Julie-Ann: Yes, I mean, that's a very hard area to work on. And it is actually the obligation and role of the producers. They're supposed to inform their customers of the substances within those products that people are buying, and what is needed to do at the end. I mean, very rarely do people, you know, keep manuals for five years that might be in 47 different languages, and then when they go to dispose of it or discard of it, they go, "Well, let me look it up again." So, that information needs to be more accessible, more up-to-date, and available online. And I know that's what the digital product passport, the QR code, or however they're going to do it, one of their aspects would be of a benefit to those consumers, to educate them. But again, going back to what I was saying is that all European citizens have an equal right. And so, producers need to create the collection systems, regardless of how costly it might be, because it's a very mountainous region, or it's a very open country region. It's much easier to collect in cities. But cities have a problem because they're lacking space. Historically, collection centers are quite small, and, obviously, products are getting bigger, and the volumes are growing. So, a lot needs to be done between the producers, the producer schemes, and municipalities, to try and make it an easier experience for consumers. The other aspect is there should be much more enforcement on illegal actors. So, our members are responsible for around 50% of the e-waste that arose in Europe last year. And so, one has to ask, where does the rest of it go? So, some of it, obviously, will go to companies that are not EERA members, and others will go to illegal actors who are claiming something, a product is fit for reuse, or it was never waste, it's used, and secondhand, and it gets shipped out to these countries where we see these horrific photos, because reuse is actually a really difficult word to define. And so, hence, it's very easy to have that gray area for illegal operators to work through. So, I've been out, and I've seen these sites in China, and it's quite pitiful to see. And so consumers need to be more aware of the impact of allowing their products to go to an illegal route. So, yes. Those are the two things, really. Producers need to work with the other parties to make better collection experiences and provide the information, and the enforcement authorities need to stop illegal exporters.

Cristina: We all need to play our part. Thank you.

Julie-Ann: Yes. Exactly. Yes. We're all consumers, and so we all do need to be playing our part. I agree.

Cristina: Absolutely. Thank you very much, Julie-Ann Adams, the CEO of the European Electronics Recycle Association. Thank you for being with us today.

Julie-Ann: You're welcome. Thank you. Cheers.

Cristina: If you enjoyed this podcast, please join our other episodes to learn more about the metal markets. For more information about critical materials, e-waste recycling, and circular economy, please visit argusmedia.com.

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