Supply chain volatility sparks calls for action on e-waste

--- Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) says supply concerns further highlight the need for e-waste recycling ---

--- RSC research also reveals global concern over e-waste fuelling demand for sustainable tech ---

--- 60% of consumers would switch to rival of preferred tech brand if goods were produced sustainably ---

Global volatility in supply chains for critical raw materials used in everything from computers to EVs underlines the argument for a circular e-waste economy, says the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Significant fluctuations in prices of materials such as nickel – a key element in next-gen EV battery tech – as well as elements like lithium, palladium, titanium, copper, gold and platinum, are being seen in the wake of geopolitical uncertainty and continued challenges due to the COVID pandemic. 

This is causing chaos in the technology supply chain, with speculators calling for more domesticated mining to quell global supply chain fears.

The RSC say localised e-waste recycling to recover these materials from technology should be prioritised to reduce the impact of volatile supply chains in the long term and address a growing demand from consumers for sustainable technology. 

Consumers agree, with 73% of respondents to the RSC’s international survey stating that they believe governments should take urgent action to tackle e-waste before the situation gets any worse. Furthermore, 74% said they believe brands should do more to show how sustainable electronic products are. 

Professor Tom Welton, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said:

“It appears as though consumer attitudes are finally starting to change, with concern for the depletion of natural resources, labour conditions and the growing e-waste crisis curtailing our desire to have the most up-to-date pieces of kit.

“This is very encouraging, but we’re not there yet and recent events have further highlighted that supply chains are always at risk of being compromised. Our tech consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw elements needed to produce such items, while continuing to exacerbate the environmental damage these habits have caused.

“Developing a circular economy where minerals used in tech devices are salvaged and repurposed could help us to bypass supply chain issues in the future while also helping to reduce environmental impacts. It is essential that governments and businesses urgently do more to develop a circular economy which can tackle the world’s growing e-waste crisis and alleviate the strain on supply chains.”  

The Royal Society of Chemistry asked 10,000 consumers across 10 countries about their attitudes towards technology and waste, and found that growing global concern over the e-waste crisis is fuelling consumer demand for sustainable technology.

Two-thirds of consumers (66%) believe it is too difficult to find out if a device has been sustainably produced before purchasing, and 60% of those surveyed say they would be more likely to switch to a rival of their preferred tech brand if they knew the product was made in a sustainable way.

Looking at the end of the product lifecycle, just over half (57%) said they worry about the environmental effect of the unused tech devices they have at home, but either don’t know what to do with them or are unconvinced the current processes available in their local area deal with e-waste effectively.

The figures have been revealed as part of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Precious Elements campaign, which draws attention to supply risks of some of the elements used in consumer technology including the likes of gold, yttrium and indium. The shortage has become so urgent that designs for devices such as solar panels are already being changed to account for the high demand of certain elements used in mobile phones.

Do chemists have the answer?

Chemical scientists around the globe are working on solutions to help recover these elements from our unwanted devices. 

In Bury St Edmunds, scientists at N2S have developed a bacterial amalgamation that recovers valuable and reusable metals from waste circuitry via a process known as bioleaching.

Their patent-pending technology harnesses the power of micro-organisms that naturally work to separate metals and precious elements from the plastic and silicon found in circuit boards. The output is a host of metals and minerals ready to be reused as if they had been freshly mined from the ground.

Up until now, most techniques to recover precious metals in e-waste involve using acid or heat to melt the plastic, both of which are effective in recovering metals such as gold and copper but lead to the loss of scarcer elements such as indium and tantalum.

Rob Bolton, Operations Director at N2S, said:

“A printed circuit board contains a whole host of precious elements, up to 40 in fact, and these boards can measure from a few inches square to a few feet. The solution we have is environmentally friendly and can be deployed at scale, which is essential to deal with the world’s enormous e-waste pipeline.

“So much of what we do has never been done before. We’re even in the process of designing machines that help us deconstruct circuit boards to make them easier to process.”

N2S will open two new sites this year, in Reading and Mansfield. Rob says one of their key strengths is being able to deploy the technology anywhere.

“We see this being a multi-national operation. We want to be set up next to all the tech giants, processing e-waste so the materials can be recovered and reused on the same site. We just feed the boards in and elements come out. It makes so much sense.”

Professor Welton added:

“Not only do we need governments to overhaul recycling infrastructure and tech businesses to invest in more sustainable manufacturing practices, we need greater public and private investment in research to enable chemical scientists like those at N2S to progress methods of separating critical raw materials from electronic waste for recycling purposes.

“However, in the nearer term, we urge everyone to be more conscious about how they use and reuse technology. Before you dispose or replace it, ask yourself if it really needs replaced. Could it be repaired or updated? If it can’t be sold or donated, could it be recycled?” 

The Royal Society of Chemistry was invited to give evidence to the UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee report into e-waste in 2020 following the launch of its Precious Elements campaign, which revealed that up to 40 million unused gadgets were stockpiled in people’s homes because they didn’t know how to dispose of them. 

The recommendations outlined the importance of a ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ economy, called for incentives to design technology with sustainability in mind and highlighted the need for enhanced labelling. 

It also raised awareness of six of the elements used in smartphones that are facing the highest risk, and the need to safeguard the naturally available supply of all critical raw materials for future low carbon technologies. The recommendations have now been put to the government for possible inclusion in the new Environment Bill.

Chemical researchers in academia and industry are working to develop solutions and the Royal Society of Chemistry is collaborating to communicate recommendations to policy makers.

Case study: Shortage of some precious elements has already forced engineers to redesign how solar panels are made

Dr Matthew Davies, is the Associate Professor in Materials Engineering and head of the Applied Photochemistry Group at the SPECIFIC IKC, Swansea University. He said our demand for consumer technology has already changed the way we design future and emerging technologies with several critical ‘technology’ metals in short supply.

“Indium is a crucial part of your mobile phone’s touch-screen, but it’s also useful for solar cells,” he said.  “There’s only so much of a supply of Indium though and renewables aren’t going to beat the demand of mobile phones – so we’ve already planned for future solar cells to be indium-free. Instead of indium tin oxide, we’re now using fluorine tin oxide. While it means we can still make solar cells, without indium it limits our choice on the flexibility of these cells.

“As time moves on we are seeing more material challenges and more materials that we need to substitute. This is not always as straight forward as the indium case. The biggest fear is that we will see manufacturers of renewables and energy efficient products having to compete for materials thus limiting deployment of technology that can mitigate climate change.”