European network for innovative recovery strategies of rare earth and other Critical metals from electrical and electronic waste
In the Raw Materials Initiative strategy document (European Commission, 2014) published on May 2014, the European Commission proposed a number of targeted measures considered to be of particular importance for promoting investment in extractive industries in Europe. In this document a number of critical metals are defined. CM, which include rare earth metals are integral composites in electrical and electronic equipment (EEE) in the area of steadily growing future technologies like green technologies (GT) or information and communication technologies (ICT). Because of the high complexity of the ores and their low REM concentration, mining, extraction and refinement of REM in particular entail severe negative environmental impacts. REMs are abundant in the earth's crust, but rarely available in commercially viable concentrations. Hence, extracting REMs from the ores is a complex and energy-intensive process, involving strong acids. Additionally, radioactive materials are often found alongside of REM deposits. Due to the inseparability of the materials during the mining process the refining of REM can result in the production of large amounts of hazardous wastes.
The increasing worldwide demand is facing a crucial scarcity resulting in significantly rising prices and dependencies on the supply of REMs from politically unstable countries. Europe for instance is one of the world’s largest consumers of REMs but holds no own primary production. The largest REM deposits, however, are located in China. This involves, similar to 2010, a severe risk for the supply guaranty since the export of these materials may be limited at any time.
Therefore, evaluating all possible alternative sources of CM is essential to guaranty a secure supply in the future. One of the most important material streams containing CM is Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. WEEE contains high Neodymium and Yttrium concentrations e.g. in computers, generators and displays. However, WEEE is a non-homogeneous and complex waste mixture and recycling needs a holistic management and treatment strategy, preventing the loss of resources through disposal or illegal waste transport as well as inadequate treatment in developing countries.