The EU may make recycling e-waste a legal requirement – will it work?

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Pile of old computers

E-waste is a growing issue

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Countries in the European Union should be legally required to recycle critical metals in electronic waste, a report has found. The proposed law would be unprecedented and could drive countries outside the EU to follow suit, but there are several challenges to overcome to make this recycling work in practice.

The report by the EU-funded CEWASTE consortium argues that making recycling a legal requirement will help EU countries reduce their reliance on imports and protect against future supply disruptions of critical metals, such as lithium, neodymium and praseodymium, which are essential for manufacturing of electronic and electrical equipment. Rates of recycling of critical raw materials in the EU are currently “close to zero” in most cases, finds the report.

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In addition to introducing legislation, the report says that it will also be important to crack down on illegal e-waste export from the EU, invest in the development of recycling technology and create financial incentives for companies to recover critical raw materials, for instance by reducing tax on products made with recycled content.

But a key factor that could still limit the success of a recycling scheme is consumer behaviour – many people don’t recycle electronic gadgets such as smartphones and tablets. “It is estimated that there are more technology critical metals in household drawers than in Europe’s largest mines,” says Andy Abbott at the University of Leicester, UK.

“It’s definitely a bottleneck,” says Pascal Leroy at the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment forum in Belgium, who co-authored the report. “You can improve the recycling technology…but as long as you don’t collect more e-waste, you’re not really making much progress,” he says.

“One of the key recommendations that we have provided is to also maybe think about new ways, new collection models and new strategies for better [e-waste] collection,” says Shahrzad Manoochehri at the World Resources Forum in Switzerland, also a co-author on the report. “This is one of our key recommendations to the European Commission, to overcome this challenge and this bottleneck.”

Better enforcement of existing laws banning the export of e-waste from the EU would also be key to ensuring there is enough e-waste to be recycled, says Gavin Harper at the University of Birmingham, UK. “Ensuring waste stays within the bloc both ensures that wastes are handled responsibly and also ensures feedstock of secondary materials for recycling,” he says.

Even if these challenges in e-waste collection could be overcome, another limiting factor to a recycling scheme would be technology. Recovery technologies are well-established for some materials, such as palladium from printed circuit boards or cobalt from lithium-ion batteries. But for many others the report says further investment in recycling infrastructure and technology is needed.

“I think our biggest barrier from what we can foresee to making it an absolute mandatory requirement to recycle all critical materials is actually the limitations of technology,” says Jyoti Ahuja at the University of Birmingham’s law school. She says a law would only be feasible in the long term if we invest in improving recycling technology and infrastructure now.

Despite all the hurdles, if passed, a law mandating the recycling of critical raw materials in the EU could be a driver for outside countries to adopt similar legislation. “UK manufacturers need to make their products compatible with EU regulations, otherwise they’re going to lose the entire market so there’s very good commercial reasons why the two will want to align,” says Ahuja.

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