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The dark side of high tech precious materials recovery: Overview on the critical issues, opportunities and best practices from a material library point of view

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Socioecological Design

Authors: Dal Palù Doriana, Coraglia Valentina, Lerma Beatrice

Circular economy
Environmental sustainable processes
Ethics in design
Recycled materials
Precious and non-precious metals, urban mining

Eco-sustainable design strategies act as the liaison between different disci- plines and professionals: the world of production and research, companies and the key issues of project development –economics, society and envi- ronment [Lerma, 2014]. Many of the environmental sustainability issues are either directly or indirectly linked to materials and their life cycle [Lin- dahl, Robèrt and Broman, 2014]. Environmental impacts occur at different stages of the life cycle, including the extraction, production, transportation and processing of raw materials, as at the stage when the product is actually used and disposed of [Vezzoli and Manzini, 2007]. Furthermore, a materialcan be considered eco-sustainable when it is effectively and efficiently used within a specific project and integrated into the entire application system.Moreover, it comes to environmental sustainability when opting for the useof materials and semi-finished products sourced from areas comparable tothat where the company operates [Allione, De Giorgi, Lerma and Petruccelli, 2012]. Therefore, creating a network of contacts in the region able to assist manufacturing companies, particularly SMEs, when selecting their sup- pliers or researching and assessing local partners for processing operations appears as more and more necessary, but this approach cannot be always pursued.

Eco-sustainable design strategies play a role of utter importance for the development of innovative sustainable products and production processes[El-Haggar, 2007]. Specifically, in an evolving scenario of increasing demate-rialization and greater complexity of objects, several specific materials alrea-dy in production and those still being field tested, become more meaningful[Ferrara, 2004], such as those precious and not precious ones coming from the e-waste domain. The rapid expansion of technology and, what is more, the programmed obsolescence of these products, means that a very large amount of e-waste is created every year, every day, every minute [Baldé, Forti, Gray, Kuehr, and Stegmann, 2015].

Different materials are present in e-waste: the base metals include iron, cop- per, aluminium, nickel, zinc, selenium, indium, gallium and precious metals. Hazardous substances that can be found in e-waste include mercury, beryl- lium, lead, arsenic, cadmium and antimony instead. In addition, the larger material group consists of plastics, glass and ceramics [Fornalczyk, Willner, Francuz and Cebulski, 2013], adopted for the case and the outer part of thedevices. The availability of these materials generated the new definition of“urban mining” as the activity of recovery materials from urban waste beco- ming “the mines of the future”, and providing materials for reuse and cuttingcosts and landfill waste.

The recovery of metals and precious metals from electronic waste (e-waste) has been in fact an important topic not only for economic aspect but also for recycling rare natural sources and reducing the e-waste to prevent the envi- ronmental pollution, in other terms, following the 7Rs Golden Rule usually adopted for a sustainable waste management [El-Haggar, 2007]: in order to achieve the correct use and application of materials from a green perspecti- ve, eco-compatibility must in fact be considered when they are chosen as much as when they are at the end of their life.

Additionally, today’s materials are smart and encase an inner core of per- formance and function that could previously only be given by complex systems. Other key elements that have to be taken into account regarding environmental sustainability are the players involved in the design and ma- nufacturing processes, the origin of the resources and the location of the suppliers and manufacturers and the development of further production [Ceppa and Lerma, 2014].

One possible eco-sustainable approach towards the issue of e-waste is offe- red by Circular Economy [Geissdoerfer, Savaget, Bocken and Hultink, 2016] and the related System Design thinking [Barbero, 2016], suitable for dealing with industrial processes strategically, and aiming at recovery precious second life materials to new applications, both into the same productive chain, or to new ones. With this approach, thousands of electronic applian- ces (such as audio-visual components, televisions, VCRs, stereo equipment, mobile phones, other handheld devices, and computer components contain valuable elements and substances suitable for reclamation, including lead, silver, copper, and gold) are dismantled, and their materials are divided in order to be conveyed to new productive chains, new productive systems and new proactive industries. Nevertheless this procedure still doesn’t avoid critical issues. As an example, this process entails social, environmen- tal and legal questions, such as those generated by the uncontrolled move- ment of e-waste to countries where cheap labour and primitive approaches to recycling have resulted in health risks to local residents exposed to the release of toxins continues to an issue of concern [Ottaviani, 2018].

This investigation presents a panoramic overview, as well as the specificpoint of view of a material library on the topic. The aim will be showing the most recent data about the global amount of e-waste production, analy- sing the potentialities of innovation in terms of sustainable production andCircular Economy applied to the new application fields of these innovative- or renewed – materials in the Italian context; and showing how a mate- rial library can be valid support for the already existing SMEs, companies and designers in boosting this virtuous process. On the other hand, the most critical consequences of e-waste recovery are discussed and analy- sed, supported also by several case studies taken from the world of design and craftsmanship, dedicated to highlight this complex issue, showing how eco-sustainable design strategies can really trigger virtuous mechanisms of economic development.


Allione, C., De Giorgi, C., Lerma, B. & Petruccelli, L. (2012). From ecodesign products guide- lines to materials guidelines for a sustainable product. Qualitative and quantitative mul-ticriteria environmental profile of a material. Energy 39, (Amsterdam: Elsevier) pp. 90-99.

Baldé, C. P., Forti, V., Gray, V., Kuehr, R. and Stegmann, P. (2015). E-waste statistics: Guide-lines on classifications, reporting and indicators. (Bonn: United Nations University).

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Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: The dark side of high tech precious materials recovery: Overview on the critical issues, opportunities and best practices from a material library point of view
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
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First published: 2 October 2018
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