WEEE, rare earths and some questions

The recycling of WEEE, carried out in compliance with European environmental quality standards and within the EU, could make critical raw materials such as rare earths available and create jobs. According to data from ReMedia, one of the main Italian non-profit collective systems for the eco-sustainable management of WEEE, from 2008 to 2012 in France the recycling sector of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment has generated more than 3,000 new jobs in 20 companies specializing in recycling and recovery technologies.

Also according to ReMedia, today in Europe about 10 million tons of WEEE but only one third is properly managed and properly recycled. The economic potential of the sector would lead to generating at least one billion euros of material recovery value if the current 33% were to reach 80% (which is the percentage reached in Scandinavian countries).

A typical example of critical raw materials obtainable from WEEE is that of rare earths (REE - Rare Earth Elements), 17 chemical elements of the periodic table used in hi-tech products starting with mobile phones. The world mining production of REE for 2012 was estimated at 110 thousand tons by the USGS (U.S. Geological Survey). China is the dominant producer of rare earths and accounts for 87% of the world supply (even though this country has only 48% of world reserves). However, China's share is down compared to 2011 (95%) due to the start-up of mining production in the United States and in the Australian Mount Weld mine.

In Europe rare earths are not produced, but electrical and electronic equipment are produced which then become WEEE. Overall, the EU in the last 5 years has been a net importer of REE compounds, metals and alloys, for about 12 thousand tons / year, with a peak of 20 thousand tons in 2008. The situation has repercussions on the price: in the last 40 years the prices of rare earths have remained stable at around 5-10 thousand dollars per ton; however, in the period 2009-2011 there was a sharp increase on the impulse of China, although they have since returned to a lower level. The contribution of end-of-life recycling of rare earths is too low in Europe, which according to estimates is equivalent to less than 1% of the total quantity.

When it comes to WEEE, one of the main problems is the clandestine market. In recent decades, EU exports of valuable waste materials and metal concentrates have increased while imports have decreased. Illegal shipments of waste are quantified in about 20-25% of the total transport. The clandestine market for WEEE it is detrimental to the environment, but also to the economy: in addition to developing unfair competition for law-abiding operators, they lead to the loss of valuable resources in the event of little or no treatment for recycling.

Another problem, of another type and different in scope, is that of planned obsolescence. Sometimes the suspicion arises that the speed with which the world waste industry - not only WEEE - it becomes increasingly important from a strategic and social point of view (job creation) as well as an incentive to shorten the life cycle of products. Against planned obsolescence, which risks being implemented by manufacturers as an industrial strategy, there have been recent stances in France and Germany. Also in Italy a bill has been presented to the Chamber.

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