Patenting race to protect e-waste recycling technologies

According to the United Nations’ Global e-waste monitor, e-waste is the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Forum recently estimated the combined mass of discarded electrical and electronic equipment in 2021 alone to be more than 57 million tonnes, and it is predicted that by 2030 global e-waste will reach 74 million tonnes annually.

The Royal Society of Chemistry is running a campaign to draw attention to the unsustainability of continuing to mine all the precious elements needed to produce consumer electronic equipment. Researchers say that current reserves of some key elements are running out, and that there is a risk of exhausting the supplies of these elements. In particular, experts warn that supplies of the following elements could run out in the next century:

  • Gallium: Used in medical thermometers, LEDs, solar panels, telescopes and has possible anti-cancer properties;
  • Arsenic: Used in fireworks, as a wood preserver;
  • Silver: Used in mirrors, reactive lenses that darken in sunlight, antibacterial clothing and gloves for use with touch-screens;
  • Indium: Used in transistors, microchips, fire sprinkler systems, as a coating for ball-bearings in Formula One cars and solar panels;
  • Yttrium: Used in white LED lights, camera lenses and can be used to treat some cancers;
  • Tantalum: Used in surgical implants, electrodes for neon lights, turbine blades, rocket nozzles and nose caps for supersonic aircraft, hearing aids and pacemakers.

As a result, there is an increasing focus on improving recycling processes to mine e-waste. The potential value of the rare elements contained e-waste is vast. According to a 2019 report by the World Economic Forum, the world’s e-waste has a material value of $62.5 billion (£46 billion) – more than the GDP of most countries. The director of UN’s Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) programme points out that a tonne of discarded mobile phones is richer in gold than a tonne of gold ore.

Increased innovation in the area of e-waste mining and recycling has driven a corresponding increase in patenting activity. A patent landscaping report on e-waste recycling technologies, published by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, found that there has been a large increase in patent activity relating to the recovery of rare earth metals as well as extraction or recovery of noble metals from e-waste streams. Rare earth metal recovery is not only a fast growing area of patenting activity, but it is also the most widely protected aspect of this technology in terms of the geographic extent of protection, suggesting that this field is a major emerging topic of interest to patent applicants.

The patent landscaping report also found that the majority of patenting activity in e-waste originates in Asia – primarily in Japan and China – followed by activity originating in Europe and the United States. The patent applicants in this area of technology were found to be relatively ‘top heavy”’, in that a large proportion of the total number of patents in this area are owned by relatively few large entities. In fact, more than one quarter of the patent families in the collection derive from just 21 patent applicants, all of whom have 40 or more e-waste patents in their portfolio.

More generally, with initiatives such as the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan, adopted in March 2020, it seems likely that patenting activity in e-waste mining and recycling technologies will continue to grow in the years to come.

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