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Keywords:

  • industrial ecology;
  • printed circuit board (PCB);
  • recycling;
  • resource recovery;
  • substance flow analysis (SFA);
  • waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE)

Summary

The manufacturing of electronic and electrical equipment (EEE) is a major demand sector for precious and special metals with a strong growth potential. Both precious and special metals are contained in complex components with only small concentrations per unit. After the use-phase, waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) is an important source of these “trace elements.” Their recycling requires appropriate processes in order to cope with the hazardous substances contained in WEEE and to recover efficiently the valuable materials. Although state-of-the-art preprocessing facilities are optimized for recovering mass-relevant materials such as iron and copper, trace elements are often lost. The objective of this article is to show how a substance flow analysis (SFA) on a process level can be used for a holistic approach, covering technical improvement at process scale, optimization of product life cycles, and contributing to knowledge on economy-wide material cycles. An SFA in a full-scale preprocessing facility shows that only 11.5 wt.% of the silver and 25.6 wt.% of the gold and of the palladium reach output fractions from which they may potentially be recovered. For copper this percentage is 60. Considering the environmental rucksack of precious metals, an improvement of the recycling chain would significantly contribute to the optimization of the product life cycle impact of EEE and to ensuring the long-term supply of precious metals.