In April 2020, we were invited to give evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, for their inquiry on Electronic Waste and the Circular Economy. Our evidence has been included in today's report from the EAC, which includes a series of recommendations to government. The committee has reflected our key message that it is unsustainable to continue losing critical raw materials in e-waste to landfill, especially considering existing supply risks to these materials.
We were particularly happy to see a renewed focus on the waste hierarchy, which prioritises measures to reduce, reuse and repair devices before moving to recycling, which currently isn’t optimised for critical materials. A key factor of this will be encouraging manufacturers to build eco-design into their products, and providing clear labelling for consumers on the criticality of the elements in their device.
Previous work by the RSC has indicated that consumers currently lack awareness of how critical these materials are, but would be more inclined to recycle if they were better informed about this. The report calls for convenient take back schemes, which is also something that we called for in our Precious Elements campaign last year. Our research also found that safe data wiping is needed – to increase confidence in reuse and recycling options.
We were also encouraged to see the committee’s support for ensuring critical raw materials in particular are covered in the proposed National Materials Datahub (a national repository for materials information) as a priority; a key message we have put forward in various statements and responses. Using this to track critical raw materials in e-waste will allow for a better understanding of supply risks, as well as to identify opportunities to exploit secondary resources. We would also like to see a commitment from government to establish regular assessments of criticality of materials for the UK.
Finally, while the need for investment in new recycling technologies was briefly mentioned in the report, more needs to be done to enable research to overcome some of the remaining challenges. To ensure that the UK is in a position to deliver its strategic innovation ambitions, including around green recovery and achieving a net-zero economy, funding for research towards the substitution of critical raw materials and the separation and recycling of materials at scale should be appropriate to the projected demand of critical raw materials.
Promising solutions are within our reach, with chemical scientists working on innovations that could help us recover critical raw materials from devices more effectively. If alongside these ongoing efforts of researchers, government takes on board the recommendations in this report, we are again a step closer to a more sustainable future.