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E-Waste and Innovation: Unlocking Hidden Value

June 2014

By Irene Kitsara, Access to Information and Knowledge Division, WIPO

Discarded end-of-life electrical and electronic devices – essentially every office or household good with a cable – are the world’s fastest growing waste stream. By 2017 the annual volume of e-waste will increase by some 33 percent to an estimated 65.4 million tons - the equivalent in weight to 11 Great Pyramids of Giza - according to the UN-led public-private Solving the E-Waste Problem (StEP) initiative. The rapid development of electronics has brought with it many life-enhancing advantages and opportunities.

The downside, however, is that the scale and speed of technical innovation in this area, fuelled by our limitless appetite for next generation technologies, as well as the global uptake of these low-cost devices – with mobile cellular penetration rates alone at 96 percent – are creating an expanding mountain of e-waste. Of the 50 million tons (including fridges, computers, laptops, mobile phones, game consoles, musical equipment and televisions) generated globally each year, only between 15 to 20 percent is recycled. Much of the remaining e-waste ends up in developing countries where it is often recycled by the informal sector using rudimentary methods that present significant risks to the environment and the health of local populations.

In addition to the environmental and health imperatives of responsible e-waste disposal, it also makes good economic sense. E-waste is an alternative source of base metals and noble metals making it a valuable commodity (Photo: Panos/Jacob Silberberg).

E-waste: a complex cocktail

Unlike other types of municipal waste, e-waste involves a complex mix of hazardous, highly toxic materials and economically valuable, noble metals. As up to 60 elements from the periodic table can be found in complex electronic equipment, sophisticated processing technologies are required to maximize the recovery of these valuable resources while minimizing any negative social or environmental impact. This presents both challenges and opportunities for recyclers.

In addition to the environmental and health imperatives of responsible e-waste disposal, it also makes good economic sense. There is a growing perception that e-waste is a valuable commodity. Electronic devices are an alternative source of base metals such as copper (Cu) and tin (Sn), special metals such as cobalt (Co), Indium (In) and antimony (Sb) as well as noble metals such as silver (Ag), gold (Au), palladium (Pd) and platinum (Pt). Although the quantities used in each individual device are small, for example, 250 mg of silver are used in each mobile phone, when you consider the global sales of mobile phones are in the hundreds of millions the economic benefits of recovering and recycling discarded or obsolete mobile phones and other electronic devices are clear.

Tracking e-waste-related innovation

In order to gain a better understanding of available technologies for e-waste recycling and recovery, and as part of its efforts to promote environmentally sound disposal and recycling of e-waste, the Secretariat of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (SBC), recently requested WIPO’s support in preparing an e-waste technologies patent landscape report.

The report, published in December 2013, provides a comprehensive overview of available technologies for e-waste recycling and recovery as far as they are described in patent documents focusing on end-of-life mobile phones and computer equipment. It offers a snapshot of innovation in this field, identifies observable trends in patenting activity and provides insights about the technology development cycle, the geographic distribution of innovation, research topics and primary actors, including case studies, within e-waste and related research and development. The report analyses patent applications relating to e-waste recycling in three main categories, namely: technologies for recycling or recovering materials such as plastics or metals; sources of e-waste and their processing (e.g. batteries, cabling and printed circuit boards); and processes and logistics involved in e-waste treatment, such as magnetic sorting of e-waste.

The report analyses patent applications relating to e-waste recycling in three main categories, namely: technologies for recycling or recovering materials such as plastics or metals; sources of e-waste and their processing (e.g. batteries, cabling and printed circuit boards); and processes and logistics involved in e-waste treatment, such as magnetic sorting of e-waste.

E-waste innovation: an Asian affair

Infographic: Electronic Waste Recycling PDF, Patent Landscape Report, E-Waste Recycling Technologies

The report shows that e-waste-related patenting activity gathered pace around 2000, subsided for a short while and then took off again around 2010. The bulk of e-waste innovation is taking place in Asia (followed by Europe and the US) with Japanese consumer electronics and metals firms, such as Panasonic, Hitachi and Toshiba, representing the largest and most dominant patent portfolios with over 50 percent of all activity. China is also emerging as a key player, with domestic e-waste-related patenting activity increasing seven-fold in just six years. The US makes up a small proportion of activity but is very active in recovery of rare earths.

Many of the patent applications, however, are domestic or filed in just one jurisdiction. For example, of the 1,430 patent applications first filed in China, just 15 have been filed with another patent authority. The authors suggest this is related to the fact that as e-waste processing occurs primarily in Asia, there is little need for Asian companies to protect their technologies in Europe and the US.

They also suggest it reflects a “scatter gun” approach to patenting by Asian entities in so far as applicants are filing many more diverse technologies more speculatively. Conversely, in Europe, Japan and the US, where patent applications tend to be filed in multiple jurisdictions, the emphasis is on developing targeted, higher value vetted technologies that require greater and more expensive protection regimes.

E-waste: a valuable commodity

E-waste is no longer exclusively an environmental and public health issue. The report also points strongly to the commoditization of electronic waste, with a large increase in patent activity relating to the recovery of valuable rare earth metals (e.g. lanthanum, neodymium and praseodymium) commonly used in modern electronic devices and the recovery of noble metals, such as gold, silver and platinum from e-waste streams.

The data indicate that the recovery of rare earth metals is an emerging area of interest and one that is broadly protected in multiple jurisdictions. They also reveal a concentration of US-based activity in relation to rare earth extraction. The US holds the highest absolute number of patent families in this area. This trend is partially explained by the fact that China accounts for 90 per cent of the primary extraction of rare earth elements which are not normally sold as commodities in the open market and are subject to strict export controls. Major electronics manufacturers in the US, Japan and Europe, therefore, have an incentive to seek alternative sources of the rare earths they need.

Between 2009 and 2010, patent activity more than doubled in this sector. The report also highlights a relationship between the international flow of e-waste streams and the specialization of commercial entities within destination countries. For example, Chinese patent applications in this area tend to deal with the dismantling of e-waste and the separation of waste streams and are focused on electronic components, such as printed circuit boards and batteries, suggesting that the e-waste stream is pre-dismantled prior to reaching China. The report identifies three primary sectors of innovation in e-waste processing: decontamination, chemical separation and metal extraction.

Driving innovation trends through regulation

The patent landscape report also indicates a correlation between changes in legislation and patenting behavior. For example, although plastics and ferrous metals are the primary items recovered from e-waste, there have, in recent years, been sharp increases in the recovery of lead, tin, and especially silver and copper. Silver is the primary noble metal extracted from e-waste streams. This development appears to be driven by the implementation of the EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive (WEEE) 2012/19/EU and the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive (RoHS) 2011/65/EU to replace poisonous lead solder alloys with new pure tin, silver and copper soldering technologies.

(Photos: EMPA_e-waste)

The report indicates extensive growth in patenting activities for technologies dealing with hazardous cadmium and battery dismantling, the use of conveyor belts in e-waste logistics and waste stream sorting operations and the recovery of rare earth materials. With respect to mobile devices, which are strongly tied to computing equipment within the patent literature, growth sectors in mobile device e-waste recovery is focused primarily on components and includes a growing emphasis on battery and printed circuit board e-waste; increasing use of chemical separation techniques; decontamination of mobile device waste streams; and recovery of silver from mobile devices.

Rare earth metals

Rare earth metals are used in small amounts in almost all consumer electronic devices that contain lasers (e.g. DVD players) or displays that utilize phosphorescence. They are also used for magnetic components (such as loudspeakers, headphones or magnetic disk drives), batteries and in glass for optics, such as camera lenses

As consumer electronics penetrate more markets around the world, demand for rare earth metals will increase proportionally.

Ninety percent of all rare earths are mined in China.

Examples of rare earth metals:

  • Neodymium – used in many magnetic applications, such as microphones, speakers and hard disk drive components.
  • Yttrium, terbium, europium – used as phosphors in many different types of display technology.
  • Lanthanum – used as electrode material in nickel-metal hydride batteries, such as those used in hybrid vehicles.

The majority of the top patent applicants are bigger corporations and, interestingly, over 25 percent of the overall patenting activity comes from just 21 patent applicants, with Panasonic having the biggest patent portfolio in the field. The top commercial applicants include major consumer electronics firms, but also several corporations whose primary interest is metals extraction, such as JX Nippon, Mitsui Mining and Smelting, and Kobe Steel reflecting the growing recognition of e-waste as a high value commodity. Japanese firms as a whole are the most prolific patent applicants, with many consumer electronics companies owning technologies for plastic recycling, indicating that this was a primary historical concern with respect to processing e-waste.

The report also identifies various corporate initiatives to establish national recycling networks that manufacturers can use to provide convenient recycling opportunities for consumers. For example, since October 2007, MRM (Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company) sponsored by Mitsibushi Electric, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sharp and Toshiba, has established 1,800 recycling sites across the US and recycled 380 million pounds (over 172 million kilograms) of electronics. It is the most comprehensive recycling network in the US.

E-waste-related patenting activity in Brazil, the Russian Federation, India and China is strongly tied to the smallest patent portfolios indicating that activity in these countries (especially China) is highly diversified and spread across hundreds of different entities.

While the academic and research sector accounts for just 9 percent of e-waste-related patent applications, the percentage growth of patenting activity in this sector is outstripping that of the commercial sector. The top 30 research institutes that feature in the landscape report are all based in Asia, with China in a dominant position. The appearance of research institutes such as Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) and the Republic of Korea’s Institute of Geoscience and Minerals offers further evidence of the nature and importance of e-waste to mineral and metal recovery. The most active non-Asian public institutions are the German Fraunhofer Gesellschaft and the French CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique).

By 2017 the volume of e-waste generated each year will increase by some 33 percent to an estimated 65.4 million tons – the equivalent in weight to 11 Great Pyramids of Giza – according to the UN-led StEP (Solving the E-Waste Problem) initiative (Photo: iStock © NickolayV.)

As the world becomes ever more connected, there is every indication that the mountain of e-waste generated each year will continue to expand. As the findings of the WIPO e-waste patent landscape report suggest, however, there are already indications that companies are switching on to the economic opportunities associated with mining e-waste streams by developing technologies designed to extract the maximum value from discarded electronic devices. Increased levels of innovation in the rapidly evolving e-waste recycling sector is being fuelled by the realization that e-waste is a high value commodity, the recovery of which not only generates financial benefits but also promises to promote more environmentally benign recycling practices and improve the health and safety of local communities in destination countries.

Breakdown of the number of inventions for the recovery and recycling of noble metals found in e-waste

Sources of noble metal recovery/recycling Total inventions
Printed circuit boards 238
LEDs 109
Computers/Laptops 87
Wiring/cabling 85
Displays 78
Batteries 65
Telecom equipment 52
Capacitors 51
Fuel cells 45
Magnetic components 38
Switches/sockets 35
Household appliances 34
Integrated circuits 18
Fuses 9
Resistors 9
Inductors 7
Medical equipment 7
Piezoelectric crystals 7
Coils 6
Discrete diodes 6
Transistors 5
Antennas 2
Transformers 1

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.