A new system to help business to identify the valuable materials in e-waste and prioritise efforts to recover them, has been developed by researchers.
Between 30 and 50 million tons of electronic devices are thrown away every year globally, but many devices such as smartphones, tablets and LED screens contain precious materials, such as gold, copper, palladium, silver, platinum and cobalt.
With the volume of e-waste expected to increase by three to five per cent per year these materials present a potentially significant resource for large organisations and so a team from The University of Sheffield have carried out an economic assessment to help them determine their scale and value.
"This paper is a cornerstone and crucial evidence base to really inform society globally and encourage us to think about the amount of embedded value and precious materials in the electronic products that we consume on a daily basis," said Lenny Koh, lead author of a paper detailing the methodology in journal Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews.
The system uses factors such as the amount of a material available in waste streams, price volatility of recovered materials and the degree of purity required for reuse to help organisations identify resources and prioritise investment in materials recovery in different streams.
The methodology covers 14 popular e-products, including LCD and LED notebooks, TVs, computer monitors, cell phones and solar panels and the researchers estimate that the potential revenues from recycled e-waste were more than €2bn (£1.4bn) in 2014. This value is expected to rise to more than €3.5bn by the year 2020.
With the EU having made a circular economy, in which wastes are increasingly recognized as resources, a long term goal and as demand for exotic materials like rare earths essential for hi-tech devices increases industry is likely to have little choice but to capture recycled materials for manufacturing to meet the demand for their new products.
The paper by Koh et al. has been selected for this month's Elsevier's Atlas Award.