Rare metals have huge potential for recycling in Europe
EU-funded researchers have analysed quantities of rare earth and crucial metals contained in products currently in use or scrapped in Europe to explore the potential for recycling and improving sustainability.
© Fox #270549562, source:stock.adobe.com 2020
From smartphones to wind turbines, the rapid technological progress weve witnessed in recent decades has been made possible by using many metals not widely used before the 1990s.
But supplies of these metals are not infinite. For example, indium, neodymium and europium are either relatively scarce or Europe is almost entirely dependent on imports. Meanwhile, even relatively abundant metals such as copper may run out.
To help prevent shortages in the future and make the production and use of these metals more sustainable, the EU-funded QUMEC project explored the potential for recycling them in Europe with promising results.
We estimate that an efficient recovery and recycling of current above-ground reserves could cover up to half the annual demand for these metals. This could also reduce about 80 % of both the energy used and greenhouse gases emitted compared to the extraction of primary materials from the ground, says project leader Luca Ciacci, a research fellow at the University of Bologna, Italy.
Copper recycling well developed
To uncover the quantities of copper and critical metals that could be recycled, QUMEC used the concept of urban mines and material-flow analysis or assessments of the amount of metals currently in use, waste and scrap that could be recycled.
QUMEC found that for copper, which is widely used in wiring and electrical infrastructure, the recycling rate is high at around 60 % in Europe. However, not all collected copper is recycled within the EU, and much scrap is exported for recycling.
At the other end of the scale, recovery and recycling of indium used in electronic goods such as smartphones and flat-screen televisions is non-existent. If the urban mines of indium were collected, the rare metal separated and the waste metal recycled, almost the entire European demand for the metal could be met.
For neodymium, used in permanent magnets in wind turbines, laptops and electric vehicles, the EU relies entirely on imported materials, making recycling even more important. The project found that about 80 % of end-of-life products containing neodymium are collected for recycling, but the metal is not recovered during product sorting and separation processes. If neodymium in urban mines was collected and recycled, it could meet 60 % of European demand at current levels.
Researchers found a similar situation for europium, which is present in fluorescent lamps, LEDs and electronic goods. Today there are no recycling facilities, but recovery and recycling of this metal currently in urban mines could meet the entire EU demand.
QUMEC researchers also identified barriers to the development of rare metal recycling facilities in Europe including: the cost of establishing recycling facilities, intricate product design that complicates the separation of materials, a lack of information on how to extract the material, limited knowledge of which products contain crucial metals and a lack of end-of-life collection processes. If we dont tackle these challenges seriously, establishing and maintaining a sustainable recycling chain for many critical metals will remain problematic, says Ciacci.
QUMEC received funding from the EUs Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions programme.