Waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) is the fastest growing waste stream globally, and
whilst regulation in Australia was introduced to increase recycling of some of the components of this
waste stream (TVs, computers and computer peripherals) through the Product Stewardship
(Televisions and Computers) Regulations 2011; in reality, this recycling is mostly confined to
collection, storage and disassembly. With the precious components and materials being exported
for ‘actual recycling’.
Critical materials are just as the name suggest, critical (acknowledging the definitional issues
surrounding this word in this context). There is growing acknowledgement of both supply risks and
that society cannot continue to lose these valuable resources from the economy (beyond those
which are ‘consumed’, meaning that they cannot be recovered). The application and use of critical
materials is also growing – not just in terms of electronic goods but in an increasingly diverse range
of new and innovative technologies across every sector.
It is important to address the misconception of supply risk as simply being about a shortage of
supply. It is more likely that supply risks will manifest themselves as price increases and greater
price volatility. This poses inherent risks and opportunities for the recycling sector, most notably the
links between raw materials, secondary materials supply and reprocessing or remanufacture costs.
Critical materials experience a combination of high economic significance and a high supply risk
compared to other materials, particularly those materials where supply is concentrated in a single or
In June 2014, the European Union released its latest critical materials list which contains 20 raw
materials that are critical to the EU economy, and include Antimony, Beryllium, Borates, Chromium,
Cobalt, Coking Coal, Fluorspar, Gallium, Indium, Magnesite, Magnesium, Natural Graphite, Niobium,
Platinum Group Metals, Phosphate Rock, Rare Earths (Heavy), Rare Earths (Light), Silicon Metal and
Rare earths, for example Neodymium (Nd,) is used to create permanent magnets which are found
across all cars and aircraft, as well as in renewable and clean technologies such as wind turbines. It is
also used in electronic equipment from headphones to lasers. Whilst optical drives, hard disks
contain further materials including Praseodymium (Pr), Terbium (Tb) through to Dysprosium (Dy).
China is believed to control 90% of the rare earth production. China’s overall dominance of rare
earth has led a number of nations and manufacturers dependent on Rare Earth Elements (REE)
supplies to seek alternative opportunities and solutions for critical materials.
Whilst Australia is a major exporter of mineral commodities it is, a relatively small exporter of REE
and other critical materials – it is also a small user of critical materials consumer. The Australian
Government believes that “therefore the critical commodities for other countries are not critical at
present for Australian industries” (see Geoscience Australia’s Report titled ‘Critical Commodities for
a High-Tech World: Australia’s Potential to Supply Global Demand’, 2013). With such short-
sightedness coupled now with new drive for an 'innovation nation' and more recycling, it is no
wonder that Australia is losing ground in innovation and the on-shore manufacturing of new
Australia has natural resources of many critical materials – some of which are contained with the
tailings produced from conventional materials mining. Australia is fortunate to possess chromium,
cobalt, copper, nickel, platinum-group elements (PGE), rare-earth elements (REE), and zirconium. Of
these seven commodities, five are ranked in the group considered as most critical by the EU, Japan,
South Korea, UK and US.
In Australia, most of the initial e-waste processing is by way of mechanical processing, including
shredding materials to liberate the materials to produce a homogeneous fraction which could be
easily sorted using advanced separation equipment. However, in many cases, high level shredding
of e-wastes can result in the loss of precious metals, particularly as their overall volumes within the
e-design process and manufacture are reducing. It is important to note that segregated materials
streams command better market prices and resources can be preserved.
Where e-wastes are recycled, the recovery of critical metals such as chromium, cobalt and platinum
can exceed 50%. However, recovery of rare earths such as indium and gallium can be <1%, with
materials such as magnesium and tungsten have intermediate recycling rates of between 10-50%
depending on the end of life products and recycling processes.
We must ensure that the importance of critical materials, particularly the ‘technology metals’ (rare
earths, gallium, indium etc.) are recognised, and policy and regulatory approaches support their
domestic recovery and reuse. We need new policy stimulus around the recovery of critical metals
through improvements in waste management. This must start with the expansion of the current
product stewardship scheme to include further e-wastes and better manage the current annual
targets which have created a boom-bust culture. We must also capture new and clean technologies,
ranging from end of life electric car batteries through to solar photovoltaics. We can use the current
regulation to ensure the recycling and capture of critical materials and prepare them for reuse in the
manufacturing of clean technologies domestically.
Unlike broader metal prices which have fallen over recent years, prices for most critical materials
have risen or at least remained constant, creating more certainty and reduced risk for e-waste
processors and those dealing exclusively with critical metals. Australia’s Product Stewardship
Regulations therefore need to consider a future role in specifying recovery rates, taking into account
the current advanced sorting techniques available, and how companies are, and can into the future,
implement these new technology opportunities.