Climate Change

Italy is committed to the recycling of electronic waste

11 February 2020 | Written by La redazione

The electronics world produces a huge amount of waste containing increasingly rare and essential materials for the electronics industry itself. Their recycling is fundamental and a new ENEA project could make Italy an example in the world.

We had already told you how the technology we use every day, from smartphones to batteries, requires materials often extracted in a way that is not very respectful of the environment and human health, and in some cases also through the exploitation of child labor. Given the importance of the issue, it is good to know that different realities are moving to reduce the consumption of rare earth through the recycling of electronic components. A team of ENEA researchers has developed ROMEO, the first pilot plant in Italy for the recovery of precious materials from old computers and cell phones through a process at “room temperature” and without pretreatment of the electronic boards.


ROMEO, which stands for Recovery Of MEtals by hydrOmetallurgy, is able to recover 95% of gold, silver, platinum, palladium, copper, tin and lead from waste from electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). This first recovery point is located at the Casaccia Research Center, north of Rome, and uses an ENEA patented hydrometallurgical process, which allows a drastic reduction in energy costs compared to techniques that use high temperatures to separate metals.


Attention to the environment has also been maintained during the recovery process: the electronic boards are treated without being subjected to a shredding process, while the gaseous emissions are treated and transformed into reagents to be used again in the process itself, minimizing in this way environmental impact and production of waste. According to ENEA estimates, 129 kg of copper, 43 kg of tin, 15 kg of lead, 0.35 kg of silver and 0.24 kg of gold can be obtained from the treatment of 1 ton of electronic boards, for a total value of over 10 thousand euros (at the current market price).


A treasure in the waste. In the last year in Italy, the collection of WEEE has recorded a 10% increase compared to 2018, for a total of over 343 thousand tons, corresponding to about 43% of electronic waste. But this has the implication of the coin that approximately 57% of WEEE is still disposed of with alternative routes (such as landfill or export abroad) that do not guarantee respect for the environment nor an effective and strategic management of resources.

“With ROMEO – explained Danilo Fontana, first researcher of the Laboratory for Technologies for Reuse, Recycling, Recovery and valorization of Waste and Materials of ENEA – we want to stimulate the creation of a complete national chain for the recovery of precious metals from WEEE . Unfortunately, so far in Italy the national recycling sector stops at the initial treatment – that is, the least remunerative process – leaving foreign operators, in particular from Northern Europe, the task of recovering the ‘noble’ part of the waste. Now our goal – added Dr. Fontana – is to transfer this technology to industry so that, through the introduction of eco-innovative processes, we can complete the chain of the waste treatment cycle to keep strategic raw materials in the territory. , such as gold, rare earth, magnesium and cobalt, with all the benefits that come with it in terms of employment, economic and social terms “.

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