Metals critical to UK's net zero transition being lost in waste electronics


The UK is losing out on millions of pounds worth of metals crucial to delivering on its climate goals due to poor recycling rates and limited recyling infrastructure for waste electronics, fresh research has warned.

An analysis published last week by Material Focus, the not-for-profit organisation formerly known as the WEEE Fund, warns that less than one per cent of all rare earth elements contained in UK electronic products are being recycled.

Some 300,000 tonnes of electrical waste is thrown away by households and businesses each year in the UK, according to industry figures - and with it precious gold, silver, and palladium found in components and circuit boards is lost. If the UK collected and recycled these 300,000 tonnes of lost waste electricals, while also investing in commercially available waste electricals processing infrastructure, it could capture many materials strategically important to the UK while reaping significant economic rewards, Material Focus said.

"This research highlights that critical raw materials don't need to be lost, and for the first time shows the investment opportunities in building a circular economy for critical raw materials in the UK," said Scott Butler, executive director of Material Focus. "If the UK recycled more lost waste electricals and invested in new waste electricals processing infrastructure we could capture more of these valuable materials."  

Securing a steady supply of low-carbon technology metals will be critical to the UK's ambition to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Metals that are commonly found in electronic devices are also used in numerous climate solutions and technologies, including wind turbines, photovoltaics, batteries, fuel cells, hybrid and electrical vehicles. Yet mining these materials produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, harms biodiversity, and can affect the health and human rights of local communities. 

The report notes that precious raw materials that are recovered from waste electrical components and circuit boards in the UK are already worth £148m a year, but the majority are exported for treatment to countries with better recycling infrastructure, with many valuable materials lost through recycling processes.

Professor Rob Holdway, the director of Giraffe Innovation, the company that conducted the study, said the findings highlighted how the UK could reduce its reliance on carbon-intensive imports of precious materials.

"This research identifies nascent recycling technologies that support the UK's resource security and reduces our reliance on imports of critical raw materials," he said. "These technologies reinforce the move towards a circular economy with significant financial and environmental benefits."