UK to have a new refinery to extract precious metals from e-waste

We’re talking about designing luminaires for a Circular Economy. While we’re at it, it’s important to remember that there will still be components to be changed as they reach the end of their effective life; in particular, the LED chips, engines and drivers. The problem we have with those components is that they are the things that are the most difficult to recycle. They contain the most precious of metals that go into electronic circuitry . . .  and we are throwing these things away in their billions.

Good news then that the UK can look forward to the world’s first bacteria-based commercial recycling processor. This comes from a New Zealand start-up company, Mint Innovation, who plan to have the facility, sited in Cheshire, open within the next twelve months.

Last year’s inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee into e-waste and the circular economy reported that the UK currently has an unsustainable approach to e-waste and called for radical action. We are one of the worst offenders for exporting to developing countries that are ill-equipped to dispose of waste properly, while much of the properly reclaimed UK e-waste is sent to mainland Europe for processing. This is a double whammy; we need to ‘own’ more of our e-waste and stop dumping, and the effect of Brexit is very likely to see an increase in the price of European processing, all driving costs in the wrong direction at a time when its vitally important that we develop a robust internal Circular Economy.

Mint has developed a bio-refinery that combines hydrometallurgy and biotechnology to safely extract metals, including gold, palladium, silver and copper from the bulk of e-waste. The process has been compared to a microbrewery, using bacteria to break-out the metals. It’s a process that uses less water, less energy and produces less CO2 than conventional cyanide-based smelters.

This system is being promoted as a local, low-cost, green, alternative that can handle e-waste local to where the waste is collected. The Cheshire facility will be capable of handling 20 tonnes of e-waste per day. Rhys Charles, a researcher at Swansea University’s College of engineering has said: “Localised, smaller scale recovery benefits local people, they see the value of it to their community and town so are more likely to buy into it. This is how to start to build truly sustainable economic development.”

Lighting manufacturers who are rightly buying into a Circular Economy design model will need to look at the disposal and recovery of the micro-electronics within their products. It looks like this could be an answer for what has been a very knotty – and costly – problem.


Thanks to The Guardian for the original news article

John Bullock is the editor of The Light Review

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