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Better Tech Recycling Could Avoid Rare Metal Shortages

The tech industry is facing a new threat, not from restricted IT budgets but an increasing shortage of vital rare metals

On by Tom Jowitt 0

The ingredients used by the global electronics industry to make complex tech equipment are increasingly in short supply, and could cause crippling shortages of vital equipment unless attempts are made to recycle the valuable minerals out of old computers.

Difficulties in extracting rare metals from the earth mean the best place to mine them is the waste stream form the IT industry, according to a warning given at the Royal Society in London, by a issued by a professor at the international business school INSEAD.

Rare Metals

At the moment the world continues to churn out faster computers, more smartphones etc, but all this is placing a strain on the production of rare metals used in these technologies.

Rare metals include gallium (used as a silicon replacement material), indium (used in liquid crystal displays and solar panels) and selenium (used in photocopying, photocells, light meters, solar cells etc).

These metals are apparently known as “hitchhiker” metals because they are avaialble only as byproducts of mining major industrial metals such as aluminium, copper and zinc. This means that it is hard to ramp up the production of these whenever certain industries face a shortage.

“With respect to metals that are hitchhikers, a higher price isn’t going to lead to much more production,” Robert Ayres, a physicist and economist based at the international business school INSEAD was quoted as saying by InnovationNewsDaily. “And therefore it’s much more important to think in terms of conservation, recycling and substitution.”

Recycling Needed

Ayres made the statement during a speech to the Royal Society in London 30 January. He is urging both national governments and the industries themselves to create a standard recycling process that could reharvest rare metals from old tech equipment.

“You produce something, you use it, but you don’t just toss it in a landfill; it goes to another stage and another, and eventually the rare materials are recovered,” Ayres told InnovationNewsDaily. “At present, hardly any are recovered.”

Ayres raises a good point about the handling of old tech equipment – which fails to fully exploit recycling, as well as the possibility of refurbishing the kit and keeping it in use.

The recycling of old equipment goes through a system which fails to account for the value of the materials involved, according to research by Hewlett-Packard. Meanwhile, the lack of focus on the reuse of old IT equipment in the EU’s updated Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, was highlighted by British IT charity Computer Aid.

The charity, which sends refurbished PCs for use in developing countries, said it was ‘dismayed’ by the lack of importance placed on reuse in the revised WEEE legislation, although it welcomed the fact that other parts of the rules have been strengthened.

Toxic e-waste

Harvesting materials from e-waste is not without its problems., in particular health hazards. Unfortunately, at the moment a lot of old computer and tech equipment is not recycled properly and this e-waste often ends up in developing nations. Indeed some African countries such as Ghana continue to be the de facto dumping ground for the western world’s toxic electrical waste, putting local children at serious health risks.

E-waste pollutes the environment, causing further damage to communities near such dump sites. Heavy metals including chromium, cadmium, lead, zinc, and nickel leach from the abandoned equipment and contaminate local water supplies.  In the past Greenpeace has targetted Samsung, Dell and Apple over energy-intensive and toxic IT.

Tom Jowitt
Author: Tom Jowitt
Freelance TechWeek Reporter
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