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International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference closes on a high note!

The first International WEEE & Battery Recycling Virtual Conference in the region witnessed a great gathering of the WEEE and battery industry players. The half-day virtual event held 9 December was organised by Waste & Recycling MEA and Recycling Today Media Group.

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December 22 2020
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The event recorded an all-time high number of attendees from 40+ countries. The platform witnessed 500+ participants; 750+ session views; and 2500+ networking activities among industry professionals. The conference offered presentations and live interactive panel discussions examining ITAD opportunities, advances in e-scrap and battery recycling technology, boosting circularity and more. Swaliha Shanavas reports.

WEEE Recycling – Complex issues

Dr. Helmut Kolba, Managing Director, Remondis Electrorecycling GmbH and Chairman, BIR E-Scrap Committee, delivered the keynote address. He saw the electronics recycling as “the most rapidly growing part” of the recycling business, saying that they expect at least three percent growth per year. The WEEE Recycling Roundtable brought together industry professionals from various regions who discussed and debated a range of topics that threw light on the key challenges faced by each region regarding the collection and treatment of e-scrap, extended producer responsibility (EPR) and other regulatory aspects that influence the growth of the sector, as well the opportunities and circular economy trends.

Keith Anderson, Chairman of E-Waste Association South Africa (E-WASA) said the country currently recycles only about 12 percent of the e-scrap being generated, which also presents a huge opportunity for the sector. With the pending EPR legislation that was launched in November 2020, “it could change the whole game dramatically” both from a compliance point of view and an environmental aspect, he noted.

ALN Rao, CEO of India-based Exigo Recycling said the e-scrap recycling sector in the county is trying to process some 3.5 million tons of e-scrap per year. In 2016, the EPR rules and in 2018 the amendments were introduced thereof. The sector is expecting some 1,500 licenced OEMs to play a role in expanding the current capacity, which he estimated as consisting of about 300 recycling plants with a combined capacity of 1 million tons.

Nigel Mattravers, Director of ALBA Integrated Waste Solutions, Hong Kong, said that city is has to deal with about 70,000 tons of e-scrap per year, and the government has introduced a fully integrated EPR system with necessary legislation to ensure all treatment facilities are fully licenced and at the same time is controlled on import and export of materials. “So we are quite fortunate that we have this fully integrated solution in Hong Kong.” He also said they are well equipped to deal with material reaching their facility.

While the panelists agreed that there was growth, they also stressed the need for enforcement of regulations to be improve recycling rates. The regulatory and legislative processes introduced in various countries have required the OEMs to put in place their commitments, commented Stuart Fleming, Founding Partner of UAE-based EnviroServe. “They embrace it when it happens and as long as it’s a fair and equal process,” he added. Anderson agreed with Stuart’s comment that the producers adapted “when required”.

However, he said despite many regions having appropriate WEEE legislation, “the recovery rates are exceptionally low”. So, “if there is legislation, but it is not enforced, does is serve the purpose?” he asked. In India, Rao said only when the EPR rules were introduced in 2016, the producers started taking the issue seriously. “Since it has moved to a cost based model now, there is more seriousness in adapting the rules and regulations,” he commented. He also pointed out the difficulties in implementing the rules by various state governments. Rao said, “It will take time, but the next five years will be crucial for the country in understanding these rules and putting it into practice at the ground level.”

Mattravers said for all waste streams enforcement is important. Many countries have had legislation for years, “but without investment in enforcement, which also includes people in the enforcing agencies who monitor what’s going on, then things don’t happen.” He said his company was pleased with Hong Kong’s ability to enforce its EPR system. On enforcement, the panelists also mentioned the issue regarding the figures being portrayed and whether the measurement formulas or tools were the right ones. “Are we actually measuring the right things?” asked Keith.

The panel touched upon some of the key challenges faced by e-scrap recyclers in different regions. While certain items are intrinsically of a higher value and some of them are easy to take apart, people will immediately consider them. But difficult items like refrigerators and air conditioners pose a real challenge as they are particularly difficult to treat “in an environmentally sound manner,” said Mattravers. TV screens are also a challenge now “as they get thinner and thinner and bigger and bigger,” he remarked.

In Africa, there are a unique set of challenges, where a major part of the country still follows the linear use and throw model, said Anderson. Certain parts have shifted toward the recycling economy with basic recycling happening; and there are limited but growing areas where they have started to adopt the circular economy model, he noted, adding that each scenario throws up a different set of challenges. There are also other issues and there is a need to be innovative in addressing those problems, he highlighted.

In India most of the 300 odd recyclers deal with IT products, said Rao. “The entry level barrier for e-scrap recyclers is very high. There are no incentives from the government,” he said, also stating that shipping materials across the country was “a nightmare” due to exorbitant transport costs. The recyclers can do all they can, but what is needed is integrated specific organisations in resource treatment, Stuart stressed. Despite the sector being one of the largest growing waste streams also dealing with hazardous material, they do not receive the priority and support required, he lamented.

Addressing a very interesting question on the informal sector, the panelists said stakeholders ranging from producers to governments in various countries are trying to figure out how to bypass these informal networks or include them in the formal network. Rao estimated that most of the e-scrap collected enters the informal sector in India. He said this sector plays a vital role and “their reverse logistics network mechanisms are fantastic.” All stakeholders including the government were exploring ways to inculcate the informal network into the mainstream economy, he stated. “It is a challenge, but the process has already started in India,” said Rao.

Keith Anderson said in South Africa they follow a very similar path to India, adding that there is a huge network of informal collectors who provide a valuable service, but it “comes at quite a cost in damage to the environment and to themselves.” They have been engaging with them as have other PROs from an education and training perspective and forming collaborative partnerships. They plan to launch the “E-WASA academy” next year for “on the job training” and “theoretical training” providing certificates for waste collectors and environmental managers. The informal collectors are interested in recycling due to the value of the materials, said Fleming. “You’ve got to embrace it and you’ve got to incentivise it,” he observed. “It comes down to incentives, you have to embrace them as your mates and your buddies.”

The progress has not always been linear and that e-scrap recycling has benefited from various factors, said John Shegerian, co-founder and CEO of ERI, in an interview that was part of the virtual conference. As of 2020, he said, not only is e-scrap the fastest growing stream, but it may be larger than it ever was. Legislation, sustainability programmes and information destruction needs have played a role in improving e-scrap recycling rates, he noted.

Battery Recycling – New opportunities and challenges

Various individual presentations and roundtable discussion on battery recycling brought to the fore some key insights on emerging technologies and the efforts to tackle the problem of varied and increasing amounts of end-of-life batteries generated from electronic devices and electric vehicles. Panelists and speakers addressed the new opportunities and problems facing the sector, infrastructure and material issues, health and safety, advances in recycling technologies and potential, regulatory concerns, among others. Green Li-ion, based in Singapore, is one of the companies that have technology designed to create valuable materials from end-of-life batteries. Leon Farrant, cofounder and CEO, said Green Li-ion has created “the first technology that can fully rejuvenate spent li-ion batteries.”

The technology uses a hydrometallurgical process with very low footprint. The hydrometallurgical process can produce one ton of 99.9 percent pure battery cathodes every 10 hours without pre-sorting of batteries required, said Farrant. He said the process could particularly help if future initiatives involve increased collection of batteries from homes and apartments or mining those critical materials from landfills.

Energy company Fortum made an acquisition early 2020 so as to allow it to scale up the lithium-ion battery recycling technology. Kalle Saarimaa, Vice President of recycling and waste solutions, Finland-based Fortum, said the company acquired the hydrometallurgical technology because it can achieve “almost 100 percent recycling rates” for materials found in lithium-ion batteries. He said the company is focused on li-ion batteries on industrial scale and has “invested in the whole value chain, right from collection, mechanical recycling and hydrometallurgical processing.” With their capabilities, he said, they expect to achieve 100 percent recycling rates in the future.

The battery recycling market is in its early stages and “comes with its own challenges, but it provides a lot of opportunities for us to address some of the environmental concerns in UAE,” said Joseph Nforbin, Managing Director of Dubai, UAE-based Madenat Al Nokhba Recycling Services. “There’s lots of opportunity in this space, given there is such a risk to the critical metals market,” said Farrant. Metals like cobalt and lithium are finite resources and “they cost a lot to the environment and humanity to extract them,” he stressed. “The opportunity is about the full rejuvenation of these materials and these batteries. How do we take these and use every part of them to rejuvenate and create a brand new battery?” he asked.

Saarimaa pointed out some of the challenges including regulatory aspects and price of critical metals. “In the future it will become more commercial and feasible, but today it is still cheaper to dispose of these batteries without recycling.” Recyclers would like to attain nearly 100 percent recycling rate achieved for lead-acid batteries for other types of batteries, but the requisite legislative framework and market investments for this are not yet in place. Panelists and presenters cited several reasons for the lag including the fact that in terms of electric vehicle (EV) batteries there is no uniformity of standardisation yet, which affects the profitability aspects especially for large EV batteries.

In the EV sector, the diversity of the emerging technology is a challenge, said Willy Tomboy, Consultant at Belgium-based Detomserve. With these batteries, there is “diversity in weight, diversity in chemistry and in application,” he commented, adding that this makes it “rather difficult for recyclers to know with what type of batteries they are dealing with.” According to Tomboy, future European Union legislation will possibly include a “battery passport” system for larger EV battery packs, similar to the vehicle identification number for whole vehicles. So, the battery could be followed through its lifecycle and all stakeholders involved could know what type of battery they are dealing with. “It is very important especially for recyclers to know what type of batteries are reaching their facilities and how to deal with them,” he underscored.

Olivier Groux, Project Manager/ Battery Specialist at Switzerlandbased Kyburz, in his presentation that was part of the virtual conference, highlighted the issues for recyclers considering the way in which the materials are assembled making them difficult to disassemble. He said most EV batteries involve covering an aluminum or copper foil sheet with a paste that includes different metals, generally lithium and cobalt. This core is then wrapped and surrounded in such a way to keep the active materials from draining or leaking. Kyburz, which produces small EVs mainly for work applications, has developed technology to recycle batteries used in its own vehicles and other vehicles. The multi-stage process has been designed to yield clean aluminum and copper foils extracted from endof- life lithium iron phosphate (LFP or LiFePO4) batteries, as well as lithium iron phosphate, recyclable plastic and graphite.

To recycle such batteries can involve cost-intensive dismantling that yields a relatively small amount of marketable scrap metal per battery. Saarimaa said that combination means making the activity “more commercially feasible” is one of the main challenges, along with increasing collection rates to help build scale. Nforbin saw a likely role for EPR legislation to facilitate their operations and attract investments in the collection and processing of batteries. He described lithium-ion battery recycling in Dubai as “still at an infant stage,” although a law due to be enacted in the near future could prompt changes. The development of technology is important, he said. “The closer a proper recycling facility is, the better to avoid transboundary movement of those hazardous materials,” Nforbin remarked.

With regard to scaling up to a larger commercial scale, Farrant said “our machine can produce one ton of battery cathodes every 10 hours. It is hard to scale as we need a lot of machines.” But what we see is that the battery recyclers and people that have the supply chain connections to sell the cathode material or maybe produce their own batteries, don’t always want to create one single battery type. What our machine allows us to do is to reconfigure the control system and change and produce a different outcome.” He also said while having different lines and machines allows one the luxury of scaling up, there is also a need for more capital investment. “It’s probably a commercial challenge than a capability challenge,” he remarked.

While they have the capabilities and are planning to invest on an industrial scale to scale up, Saarimaa said, “we all know that end-of-life batteries will not come in massive amounts.” So, besides batteries, they think of different applications, where their technology can be applied to extract other valuable metals, which would help them build a commercially bigger operation, he said. Though there are many hurdles, the panelists were of the view that effective implementation of EPR and developments in technology could help advance lithium-ion battery recycling. “In 2021 Singapore will implement the EPR legislation, which is really encouraging,” said Farrant. “Also, the funding and government support for battery and e-waste recycling is reassuring.”

Nforbin said he expects an improvement in battery and e-waste recycling. Presently, the UAE government is stepping up efforts to address the issue of “informal” battery recycling sector and his company is trying to work with the sector as partners, he noted. “In the EU we will soon see renewed battery recycling initiatives. So, I see a lot of positive developments taking place in the next few years,” said Saarimaa. Tomboy said the Batteries Directive will soon change into a regulation that would come into effect in all EU member states. The regulation will certainly include an increase in collection rates and recycling targets, specifically for lithium and portable batteries, plus EPR and other aspects as well, he commented. “So, I see a lot of major changes next year which will have a serious impact on a lot of people throughout the value chain of all types of batteries,” he noted.


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