Electronics recycling has reached a point of diminishing monetary returns. Miniaturization, decreasing gold content and product design are affecting metals recovery and reducing the financial driver for collection and treatment of end-of-life (EOL) electronics. Many materials, such as rare earth metals, have a high cost for recovery compared to their market value. This, combined with a lack of proven processing technologies, often means these types of metals are not recovered at all. In the face of such diminishing returns, new ideas and solutions for recovery are necessary.

There is a need to look beyond the traditional recycling models of pulling out the materials with selective treatment requirements and end-of-life-electronics.jpgshredding the remainder. This approach is yielding less and less value, due to reduction in the precious metal content, and different business models should be considered. These might include more disassembly, or increases in reuse and repair of the electronic product followed by resale of the product itself or working subassemblies.

Metals recovery is often supported by asset management activities (data destruction, logistics and resale) that generate sufficient revenue to support the recycling enterprise. This approach of combining different sources of value can be taken even farther if the electronics community and its stakeholders work together to determine what an optimized, integrated value recovery system would look like. Such a system would include, but not be limited to, product reuse, component reuse, recovery of metals and other materials and, to facilitate all value recovery options, product design for EoL. Optimized EoL management must also include development of recovery technologies, information sharing within the system, supply chain incentives for collection, new pathways for collection and coordinated pre-processing systems.

Once we better understand what can be recovered — either via reuse, resale or recycling — then processes can be optimized to increase value recovery. Additionally, potential considerations for design changes to electronic products and assemblies can be fed back to the OEMs, some of which have already agreed to consider design changes to improve the ability to recover valuable materials.

Such a value recovery approach and a community that supports it will be essential for creating a sustainable and circular economy. Dr. Eleanor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, laid out a framework for developing voluntary, community-based solutions, involving adaptive, self-governing systems that effectively manage common pool resources. EoL electronics are common pool resources — i.e., resources that many different people and organizations rely on for their livelihood. Furthermore, electronics are embedded in the type of existing systems on which Ostrom based her “complex, social-ecological systems” framework, which is composed of multiple sub-systems at multiple levels that are relatively separable but interact to produce outcomes and viability at the top level. This approach can be used for the ultimate goal of creating pathways to sustainable electronics.

iNEMI is hosting a forum September 6, immediately prior to the Electronics Goes Green conference (September 7-9) in Berlin. The forum will discuss how the electronics industry might develop — and support — a value recovery approach for electronics reuse and recycling. What can be done now, before regulation is established, to support a sustainable, circular economy for electronics? Make plans now to join the discussion.

In addition to the forum, iNEMI currently has two projects related to end-of-life electronics:

If you are interested in either of these projects, contact Mark Schaffer (iNEMI) for additional details.