UK needs e-waste infrastructure to recover precious and critical metals

Retrieving valuable and critical metals from e-waste is key to the success of the electric vehicle revolution, says Chris Oldroyd, MD of Inprotec

Encouraging more people into electric vehicles is at the heart of the government’s efforts to tackle climate change, with the UK committed to making all cars zero-emission by 2050.

To this end, a huge amount of progress has been made so far. The government has faced many of the obvious challenges to adopting the technology, investing £37m, for example, in a number of projects to make it easier for electric car owners to charge up their vehicles.

e-waste
E-waste (Image by dokumol from Pixabay)

The latest barrier to fall is price, with research published in July revealing that the sweet spot for electric vehicle ownership has now been achieved, with the average zero-emission model already cheaper to own than a petrol car.

With price no longer the obstacle to take-up that it once was, it seems logical that we can expect to see increasing demand for e-vehicles, with latest Department for Transport data suggesting the UK has already surpassed 100,000 pure-electric cars on the road.

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But there’s a potential spanner in the works.

Demand is no longer the big challenge – supply is. Critical metals, such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and Rare Earth Elements (REE), as well as precious metals such as gold, silver and the platinum group metals, are all currently mined and used in the production of key components of every electric vehicle (e-vehicle). But reserves of these metals are finite and increasingly depleted and the countries that import these metals – including the UK – are increasingly vulnerable to politically or economically driven fluctuations in supply. These are major concerns when you consider that a group of leading scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and other institutions recently calculated that meeting the UK’s targets for electric cars by 2050 would require nearly twice the world’s current output of cobalt.

It’s clear that primary sources of these vital metals are finite and unreliable. But secondary sources are a different matter.

That’s because the electronic and electrical products we all own, from laptops and phones, through to refrigerators and ovens, often contain very small quantities of these valuable and critical metals.

Indeed, the UN’s Global E-waste Monitor report published in July found that at least $10bn (£7.9bn) worth of platinum, cobalt and other valuable and critical metals are dumped every year in the growing mountain of electronic waste  (e-waste) that is polluting the planet.

It’s clear that, while primary sources of these metals are finite and increasingly depleted, we have secondary sources in abundance, all locked-up in the 22.4kg of e-waste that each person in the UK produced last year alone.

This takes us to the second major challenge; the UK currently has no infrastructure in place to retrieve and retain the valuable and critical metals contained within this precious e-waste.

Instead, we mostly ship it abroad. Some of the countries it goes to, such as Belgium, use advanced technologies to recover and retain these precious metals at scale. But not all are as sophisticated. Some low and middle-income countries use unsafe practices, which include burning circuit boards to recover copper, a process that releases highly toxic metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium causing severe health effects to workers as well as to the children who often live and play near e-waste activities.

The government’s electric dream could turn into a nightmare

Such practices are irresponsible and economically and environmentally damaging – and risk jeopardising the future success of the e-vehicle manufacturing revolution in the UK. It’s time the UK took care of its own valuable metal waste.

We have the technological capabilities. What we’re missing is the support and investment from government to make such an operation economically viable in the UK.

It costs a considerable amount of money to extract and refine metal waste and it is only commercially viable if it is done on a large-scale. Unfortunately, the facilities that exist in the UK currently are not big enough, or equipped with the right multi-metal processing technologies, to effectively handle the amount of waste needed for such an operation to be commercially viable.

This needs to change. Simply put, the UK government needs to provide a multi-million-pound grant to fund the creation of such a facility and attract private investment, working with industry and academia to bring together the knowledge and resources required to drive fundamental change.

The government’s plans to phase out diesel and petrol vehicles as part of its zero-emission strategy should be applauded, but unless it gets the necessary infrastructure in place to ensure the UK can retrieve and retain valuable metals, its electric dream could turn into a nightmare.

Chris Oldroyd is the MD of Inprotec and a leading expert in the field of pyrometallurgy