Waste electricals: towards a circular economy

Material Focus has commissioned new research that shows the UK economy is losing at least £13.64 million of critical raw materials due to the lack of advanced recovery technologies in the UK. 

Material Focus comissioned Giraffe Innovation, in partnership with Swansea University, to investigate the scale of the opportunity for recovering critical raw materials and technology metals from waste electricals. This involved a material flow analysis to determine which of these valuable materials were contained within waste electricals already being sent for recycling in the UK, as well as their quantities, economic value and the emitted CO2 equivalent of mining for these same materials. The report also identified technologies, at various stages of commercial readiness, for recovering these materials and therefore helps paint a picture of what the future of advanced material recovery infrastructure from electricals could look like in the UK.  

Key findings

Critical raw materials are vital in the manufacture of a wide range of electrical items, such as mobile phones, tablets and smart TV’s. Overall demand for raw materials globally is expected to double between 2010 and 2030, with demand for critical raw materials in particular expected to accelerate by 20 times over the same period. 

The research found that 379,000 kg of critical and precious raw materials are found in waste electrical components and circuit boards, including gold, silver and palladium, and these are worth £148 million a year.  These are currently exported for treatment with some lost through existing recycling processes. The report also provides a technology roadmap for the advanced recycling infrastructure the UK could invest in to help recover many of these materials.

More key findings

  • 128,665 tonnes of CO2 is the carbon footprint equivalent for mining these materials
  • The 3,300 kgs of neodymium recovered could help manufacture 2,661 new 1.3 MW wind turbines
  • The 1,560 kgs of gold recovered could help make 487,500 new wedding rings

With the UK throwing away 300,000 tonnes of electrical waste from households and businesses each year, the research highlights the potential for increased recycling of electricals as a means to address the UK’s economic vulnerability regarding these materials.

Contributing towards a circular economy utilising Critical Raw Materials from Waste Electricals

Giraffe Innovation and Swansea University. July 2021. 179 pages. PDF.

Critical Raw materials report cover