Material challenges remain on electronics recycling front

Material challenges remain on electronics recycling front

Recyclers at Salzburg, Austria, conference say new composite materials are an emerging recycling challenge.

January 19, 2017

Manufacturers of electronic devices say they are trying to keep end-of-life recycling in mind when designing products, but companies who handle the obsolete items say challenges remain, according to presenters at the 2017 International Electronics Recycling Congress (IERC), which took place in mid-January in Salzburg, Austria.


When designing it products, United States-based Dell takes into account reparability and recyclability, said Jonathan Perry, a producer responsibility compliance consultant with the company. “The batteries of our laptops are easily removable and we use recycled plastics from recycled electronics in our housing parts, effectively closing the materials loop,” he remarked. “Our experts are looking at future design as well as recycling technologies to ensure that our products remain highly recyclable.”


But other materials are causing headaches for recyclers, said Mike Biddle, managing director of U.S.-based cleantech fund Evok Innovations and founder and director of MBA Polymers. “Apart from the increasingly complex materials, composites of mixed materials, the known legacy heavy metals and halogenated flame retardants, new additives are also beginning to emerge, such as nanoparticles, presenting recycling enterprises with new challenges,” he stated.


Little research has been done into some of these newest materials with respect to how they behave in traditional recycling processes, said Biddle. It is possible some of these new materials and additives may also present new dangers with respect to environmental protection and industrial health and safety if not handled with care, particularly during shredding or other size reduction processing. Furthermore, it’s often not easy or even possible for the recycler to know which products have additives that might need special handling, as these additives are sometimes considered proprietary, he added.


From a commercial standpoint, too, the years to come are also likely to remain challenging. Biddle pointed to three trends that are actually “good for the planet” but may be tough for recyclers. These include: downsizing, i.e. making electronic devices smaller and smaller; life extension, which means the turnover cycles of many devices are beginning to lengthen; and a potential trend toward a sharing economy.


“Particularly in major cities, the idea of sharing is becoming more and more popular,” said Biddle. Not every home needs all of the power tools and appliances they have that they perhaps use only a few times a year. Although the sharing economy is a good idea, it presents a downside for e-scrap recyclers, as it reduces the number of new devices that need to be produced and therefore also the volume of end-of-life devices to be recycled.


Christian Müller-Guttenbrunn, an Austrian who is managing partner and CEO of Müller-Guttenbrunn GmbH, was presented with this year’s IERC Honorary Award (pictured above). The award is given at the IERC each year to especially deserving figures from the recycling sector.


“Christian has won this award for his life’s work, for the development of new recycling processes and the founding of new cleantech companies in Austria and Eastern Europe in various fields, such as plastics recycling and metal sorting,” writes the Steering Committee of the IERC 2017 in presenting Müller-Guttenbrunn with the award. The Steering Committee says the award also honours the innovative team at the Müller-Guttenbrunn Group, which was largely responsible for introducing new technologies for extracting pollutants from electronic scrap and upgrading plastic scrap for industrial use.