Closing the loop in a circular plastics economy
Electrical and electronic equipment is a growing source of waste in Europe and is difficult to recycle. Now EU-funded researchers have found a cheaper way to sort and reuse such waste. Their results could help close the loop in a circular plastics economy and power a more sustainable European future.
© Stephanie Bandmann #515213, source: stock.adobe.com 2019
Every year, the waste generated by electrical and electronic equipment, or WEEE, grows between 3 and 5 % in the European Union. Ideally, such waste would be recycled to recover valuable component materials, but that task is difficult and requires advanced sorting and recycling technologies. Instead, equipment is sometimes exported to lower-income countries where, if improperly treated, it releases toxic chemicals that are severely damaging to human health.
Researchers in the EU-funded CLOSEWEEE project have found better ways to recycle such waste. Results include a method for sorting old plastics for reuse in new consumer goods. The project also developed a technique for recycling batteries that recovers more graphite, lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. Researchers have set up a website with instructions on how to recycle electronics and hope to export this know-how.
While for many electrical components, effective recycling techniques have already been developed, there are many valuable components that are not recovered, says Paola Castrillo, project coordinator of CLOSEWEEE and research and development team manager at the Vertech Group in France. Our goal was to find ways to reclaim these components, including high-grade plastics, additives, critical minerals, and metals.
Treasure in trash
The problem was finding a way to identify materials quickly that would speed up the recycling process. The initial breakthrough came by using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy technology, or LIBS, to identify plastics by their bromine content. Non-brominated plastics could then be sorted using other sensor-based recycling technologies or conventional methods.
Efficiently sorting plastics led to other applications. For example, the CLOSEWEEE team found ways to maximise the amount of recycled plastic that could be reused in new devices up to 80 %, which is much higher than the current average.
Another result was to increase the amount of material inside lithium batteries that can be recovered. Using conventional processes, around 50 % of internal battery materials can be recycled. CLOSEWEEE increased that figure to 65 %.
Exporting knowledge not hazards
According to Castrillo, the project represents a big step towards creating a circular economy for plastics, a major goal of the European Commission. These results support and complement a reduction of the environmental burden that we can achieve through recycling valuable WEEE materials, she says.
Researchers also want other parts of the world to adopt their recycling techniques, so they launched the Recycler Information Center (RIC). This online platform provides detailed information about how to disassemble and recycle items such as computer monitors, mobile phones and circuit boards. One section, for example, includes 48 steps, with detailed notes and photos, explaining how to break apart and recycle old washing machines.
The platform supports access to critical information for sound e-waste management, Castrillo says. Its a good basis for information and will be valuable for many stakeholders. And in developing countries, implementing dismantling guidelines provided by the RIC could significantly improve the safety and working conditions of those people dismantling electronic waste.