Waste electricals: towards a circular economy

Material Focus reveals 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 commissioned Giraffe Innovation, in partnership with Swansea University, to investigate the scale of the opportunity to recover critical raw materials and technology metals from waste electricals. This involved a material flow analysis to identify which valuable materials were contained within waste electricals currently being recycled in the UK. It also examined quantities, economic value and the emitted CO2 equivalent of mining for these same materials. The report explored material recovery technologies at various stages of commercial readiness, to build a future vision of how advanced material recovery infrastructure could look in the UK.  

Key findings

Critical raw materials (CRMs) 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 CRMs expected to accelerate by 20 times over the same period. 

The research found that an average of 379,000 kg of critical and precious raw materials worth over £148m are found in waste electrical components and circuit boards every year, including gold, silver and palladium.  These are currently exported for treatment with some lost through the existing recycling processes. The report also provides a technology roadmap for the advanced recycling infrastructure which 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 new materials
  • 3,300 kgs of neodymium recovered could help manufacture 2,661 new 1.3 MW wind turbines
  • 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 shows a significant opportunity to address the UK’s economic vulnerability regarding these materials, by increasing the recycling of electricals.

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

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

Birds-eye-view of a light skinned person fixing an electrical circuit board on a table with tools. Critical Raw Materials report cover.