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Demonstrating a Circular Economy

Carol A. Handwerker, Purdue University
by Carol A. Handwerker, Purdue University on October 17, 2018 3:31:26 PM EDT

Making hard drives from hard drives

The iNEMI Project on Value Recovery from Used Electronics is a multi-stakeholder collaboration focused on demonstrating a circular economy (CE) for hard disk drives (HDDs). Its most ambitious goal is true circularity at the highest possible value — making hard drives from hard drives — while creating all the other value recovery pathways needed to make a circular HDD life cycle.

This project emerged as a high priority recommendation from iNEMI‘s State of Metals Recycling project, which determined that new models of collaboration, new supply chains, and new economically viable, clean technologies were required for a circular economy to become a reality. Three critical findings of that project were that: (1) we can consider used electronics as a “commons,” (2) the current situation for used electronics is a classic “tragedy of the commons,” and (3) we can adapt an existing formal framework for natural commons to self-organize and self-manage our man-made “commons,” (i.e., used electronics).


Drawing on the Ostrom framework

The subsequent Value Recovery project used the framework developed by Elinor Ostrom (Nobel Prize in Economics, 2009) of successful multi-stakeholder systems for self-managing natural commons. The Phase 1 project team identified key decision makers, their decision points, and the data and models on which they were basing their decisions — decisions that could make or break a circular supply chain. The Phase 1 report and presentations can be downloaded from the iNEMI website.

Phase 1 also identified (1) key stakeholder groups that must work together for a functioning circular economy; (2) new technologies, business relationships, and business models necessary to circularize the HDD economy in the context of the Ostrom framework; and (3) assessed the willingness of the broader stakeholder community to change their ways of doing business.

Demonstrating circular economy pathways

Following the success of the Phase 1 project, stakeholders were recruited into the Phase 2 project to demonstrate key circular economy pathways for HDDs. The stakeholder groups include an HDD manufacturer, large-volume users of HDDs, IT asset management companies, technology start-ups, universities, an NGO, US federal R&D laboratories, and the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI). The Phase 2 team members, collectively and individually, are creating different pathways required for an HDD circular economy. Put together, these pathways can become a blueprint for creating a multi-stakeholder circular economy for used electronics.

Removing the barriers to HDD reuse and opening up the opportunities for other value recovery pathways were key goals of the Phase 2 project. New technologies and business models were identified by the project members to significantly increase value recovery from HDDs. The project demonstrated all the types of pathways required for a circular economy, with multiple technologies possible for some pathways. Specifically, the team focused on value recovery from rare earth-containing magnets and Au and precious metals from circuit boards in their demonstration projects.

New value recovery pathways

The new value recovery pathways identified are made possible by innovative technologies for value recovery from HDD magnets — currently in the pilot stage — from Urban Mining Corporation, CMI (including Ames Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory), and Momentum Technologies. Economic, logistical, and life cycle analyses; examination of different business models; and systems dynamics modeling were used to establish the viability of the pathways both individually and in the context of a circular economy.

Key deliverables of the Phase 2 project were: 

  • Demonstration by stakeholder teams of each value recovery pathway identified.
  • Development of decision-making tools for the cost of data wiping, life cycle analysis and logistics assessments, economic return on HDD resale, systems dynamics models for HDD stocks and flows for large-volume users of HDDs.
  • Identification of the barriers to reuse and development of a strategy to remove them. 
Phase 2 of the Value Recovery from Used Electronics project is planning an end-of-project webinar to report on project results on October 31 and November 2. This free webinar is open to anyone who is interested. Click here for details. 

A written report is expected to be release in February 2019. In addition, the project team has been discussing a Phase 3 project to broaden the implementation of the value recovery pathways and to build greater supply chains for value recovery. Contact Mark Schaffer (iNEMI) if you are interested in getting involved.

Carol A. Handwerker, Purdue University
Carol Handwerker is the Reinhardt Schuhmann, Jr. Professor of Materials Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering (courtesy) at Purdue University (West Lafayette, Indiana). Her research areas include: (1) developing innovative processing strategies and technologies for next-generation microelectronics, solar cells and flexible electronics, (2) integrating sustainability in the design of new electronic materials, processes and products, (3) predicting the reliability of lead-free solder interconnects, particularly for high-performance, military, and aerospace electronic systems, (4) identifying and implementing strategies to move R&D into manufacturing, and (5) commercialization, using roadmapping, techno-economic analysis and formation of self-assembling socio-ecological systems. Prof. Handwerker is a member of the DoE Critical Materials Institute (CMI) leadership team, focused on accelerating technology transition of CMI R&D in recycling, recovery, and remanufacturing. She is also Director of the Purdue Tuskegee NSF Integrative Education and Research Traineeship program (IGERT) on Globally Sustainable Electronics. She holds a B.A. in art history from Wellesley College, and S.B., S.M. and Sc.D degrees in materials science and engineering from MIT. She is a Fellow of TMS, ASM and the American Ceramics Society, and received the TMS Leadership Award, the Applications to Practice Award, and the TMS/FMD John Bardeen Award.

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