Exciting opportunities for the recycling industry in Asia
The Electronics Recycling Asia 2015 conference, organised by the World Recycling Forum (WRF), took place in the scenic surroundings of the Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, where the presidents of China and Taiwan had shaken hands at the very same location just a few days earlier. Although the number of participants in the conference was slightly lower than in previous years, their quality was excellent, representing key stakeholders from the entire industry. In his opening speech, Roger Burri, CEO of Metal Depot Zurich AG and Co-Chairman of WRF, emphasised that the world of recycling is changing. For instance, the role of re-use is likely to become far more important in the future. Electronic products will have multiple lives, as we move from the recycling paradigm towards a re-use paradigm. The circular economy was naturally a central theme at the conference.
Demand for new technology
From a European perspective, the volume of e-waste in the Asian market is enormous. In China alone, approximately 230 million mobile phones are replaced annually. Despite a large proportion of them finding a second lease of life in the hands of another person, a huge number of handsets end up being recycled. While China is looking to become a leading player in e-waste handling, as its new WEEE legislation and the Chinese Circular Economy initiative indicate, the country still lacks the leading technology and skills needed to adequately process the waste. Likewise, India is changing its way of thinking about e-waste, as the country has meanwhile realised how many valuable resources it contains, giving European recycling technology vendors and researchers plenty to do on the Asian market in the years to come.
Collection and informal sector – major challenges
One of the key messages of the conference was that there are two major challenges in many of the emerging e-waste markets in the region. The first challenge relates to organising the collection of e-waste in the various countries. Nowadays, collection is typically handled by “a man and a bicycle” who collects e-waste door-to-door and then sells it on, typically to informal sector players. According to Venkatesha Murthy, CEO of Vans Chemistry, in most Asian countries, only 5 to 7 per cent of e-waste is collected within the formal system. Apart from collection, these door-to-door collectors also disassemble the electronic products, which, in turn, creates health problems.
According to Murthy, e-waste in Asia is a gold mine. However, before recyclers get their hands on the gold, proper regulation is needed. For instance, there is no common definition for e-waste among Asian countries. Regulators are confused, they do not understand what e-waste is. Furthermore, e-waste is not a priority on their agenda because there are other fractions causing even bigger problems.
In India there has been a lot of discussion about e-waste and regulation, but little has happened. Murthy also points out that many of the most populated countries in the world do not have recycling fees for electronic waste. One interesting item of news was that China is now subsidising collection by paying a recycling fee to people who properly recycle their used mobile phones. However, there is some concern that this policy could lead to the illegal importation of used mobile phones from neighbouring countries.
Quest for precious metals
A key theme at the conference in Singapore was precious metals, and gold in particular. The message was that in order to make money with e-waste, you need to extract the gold it contains. Even though devices are getting smaller and the amount of metal per device is diminishing, the new mobile phones and tablets still contain high amounts of precious metals, including gold and silver. In general, demand for metals in electronics is increasing dramatically. E-waste is an excellent source of gold, as up to 98 per cent of the gold can be recovered in the recycling process. According to Murthy, “there is a gold mine in e-waste in Asia”. However, in order to recover the precious metals and rare earth elements, more advanced technology and processes are needed. Japan, Taiwan and Korea have a number of companies with this capability, but it is clear that greater capacity will be needed in Asia going forward. Apart from metals, there is also huge demand for secondary plastics in Asia.
Best available technology
Technologically, various combinations of mechanical treatment, hydrometallurgy and pyrometallurgy were presented at the conference and the accompanying exhibition. The search for green technologies and processes that use less energy and toxic chemicals is in progress. However, recycling e-waste is a complex process, and getting the best possible results requires more that just the latest equipment. For instance, we heard that although China has acquired state-of-the-art recycling technology from Europe, in some cases actual production results have not reached the expected levels. As mentioned by ECO Special Waste Management Pte Ltd. during the tour of its plant in Singapore, it takes time to find the right equipment for each process and to build a well-functioning system.
Go East, young Man!
In line with the words of American author Horace Greeley, one should encourage all the players in the electronics recycling industry to go to Asia. We are living in interesting times now, as China has its WEEE legislation in place and India is realising that used eletronics can be an asset, and not just waste. Not to mention all the other interesting markets in the region, such as our host country Singapore, which is starting to model its WEEE recycling system. An eye-opening example was a story that was told in the workshop focusing on electronics recycling in China: whereas in the past, Japan looked to China to take some of its e-waste, today it is the other way around and Japan is now asking China if it could spare some of its e-waste, as resource-poor Japan needs material for urban mining purposes.
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