Indonesia can earn US$14 billion from old mobile phones and other e-waste in 2040

Indonesia is the fourth-most-populous country and one of the largest electronics consumers in the world. As a result, it has a sizeable share of used electronics and electrical equipment, known as e-waste.

This e-waste ranges from end-of-life mobile phones, tablets, laptops, personal computers and batteries, to televisions and white goods such as refrigerators and washing machines.

Our new paper estimates Indonesia could produce about two million tonnes of e-waste in 2021, which is the most in Southeast Asia.

By 2040, the economic potential of e-waste in Indonesia is predicted to reach US$14 billion

How we can generate money from e-waste

E-waste offers economic opportunities for Indonesia if we can recycle it.

While it contains hazardous elements that need to be processed and contained, it also includes valuable metals such as copper, gold, silver, platinum, palladium and other strategically valuable metals for technologies we use every day.

The concentration of selected metals in e-waste is, in some cases, higher than in their primary minerals/ores underground.

One example: it takes about 0.5-1 tonnes of gold ores to produce the gold in a wedding ring (about 2 grams). This same amount of gold can be obtained from just 15-30 kg of end-of-life mobile phones.

Hence this “urban” resource can be an alternative source for metals production.

Indonesia’s annual e-waste generation is projected to increase to 3.2 million tonnes in 20 years. That’s about 10 kg of e-waste per person in 2040, an increase from 7.3 kg/person now.

The study mentioned above also highlights that most of the e-waste is in major islands with large populations. Java, the country’s most populated island, is estimated to produce about 56% of the nation’s e-waste.

What can be done

I believe the key to capitalizing on the economic value of e-waste starts with developing an appropriate recycling system.

The government is developing a National Circular Economy Strategy. Comprehensive management of e-waste is one of the aspects being considered.

Unlike plastic wastes, e-waste should be considered as metals resources – like the primary minerals mined underground. We should focus on processing the e-waste to recover these valuable metals.

The strategy of e-waste processing can be aligned with the national strategy for mining and minerals processing.

Sustainable and environmentally friendly recycling and recovery of the valuable metals from e-waste, however, are not straightforward because of the complexity of the resource and the need to manage the hazardous elements.

In developed countries such as Belgium, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand, the major route for recycling and recovery of valuable elements is through combined chemical processes where the e-waste is sent to large centralized smelting facilities. There the e-waste is co-processed with the production of common basic non-ferrous metals of copper, lead and zinc.

These metals act as solvent to absorb the valuable elements, which are later separated in downstream chemical processes.

In such large facilities, it’s easier to manage hazardous elements as existing equipment to process primary minerals can also be used to handle hazardous emissions during e-waste processing.

As an archipelago, Indonesia’s geography makes it difficult to apply the same centralized model.

Fortunately, a number of smelters or refineries are already available in major islands across the archipelago to be part of an overall recycling system and infrastructure.

I believe the solution will include technical and logistical integration of suitable technologies to form a complete recycling chain with the introduction of mobile recycling facilities.

These facilities operate at small capacity and represent each stage of the e-waste processing – dismantling, mechanical processing and metallurgical processing. They can be placed in major islands to support the key major smelters.

These facilities can be integrated with e-waste collection, both formally by provincial governments and by scavengers, taking into account local situations and conditions.

There can also be multiple metallurgical facilities operating as individual operations that produce semi products. They can serve as feeders to the next mobile facilities or to larger integrated smelters/metals industries.

Breaking down the overall recycling process into smaller operations means smaller capital investments will be needed. This will help attract smaller industries and stimulate the creation of many new recycling industries supporting the circular economy. A caveat is that the smaller industries will have to be better regulated and supported.

Developing a comprehensive strategy and recycling system for e-waste is not easy. There are many factors to consider beyond technical aspects, including economical, logistical, environmental and sociocultural aspects.

But, with concerted and strategic efforts, we can capitalize on its elusive economic values by turning this waste into wealth.

M Akbar Rhamdhani is Professor in Extractive Metallurgy and Metals Recycling, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was republished from The under a Creative Commons license.