LIFE Project Cover Photo

Validation of a process of recovery and revalorisation of Rare Earth elements contained in wastes

Reference: LIFE11 ENV/FR/000744 | Acronym: LOOP

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

BACKGROUND

About 10 billion coffee capsules are sold worldwide each year, according to a 2010 estimate. These generated 120 000 tonnes of waste, of which Europe was responsible for some 70 000 tonnes. In Italy, 12 000 tonnes of capsules (plastic/aluminium and coffee grounds) are disposed of annually in landfills and incinerators. Capsules cannot be recycled at municipal facilities because they are composed of multiple materials. The standard materials used in coffee capsules, such as polyethylene (PE), aluminium, ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), also give rise to environmental concerns, given that the production of PET and PE for coffee-capsule production uses 15 000 tonnes of non-renewable oil. Furthermore, PE, PET and aluminium downstream production related to coffee-capsule production generates more than 410 000 tonnes of emitted carbon dioxide. The use of alternative solutions such as bio-based polymers has been investigated, but even the most promising, such as polylactic acid (PLA), cannot be used because of their poor mechanical strength, thermal resistance and permeability. However, the University of Tor Vergata has developed a new PLA product with improved properties and used it to produce coffee capsules at the Aroma Company facilities. The results were promising, but the coffee capsule production process needs to be adapted to accommodate the new material, and the new PLA formulation needs to be fine-tuned.


OBJECTIVES

The LOOP project aimed to recover RE elements from waste that would otherwise be sent to landfill. In particular, it aimed to recycle the RE elements contained in fluorescent lamps. The main goal of the project was to demonstrate that a 90% mass recycling of phosphorescent powder wastes from fluorescent lamps can be performed, at a rate of 1 500 tons/year to match the current level of this waste generated annually in Europe. The project also sought to recycle other products from the waste material, including glass. The project aimed to transform phosphor powder into RE concentrates. Simultaneously, LOOP planned to study the recycling chain of other types of waste containing RE elements, and to assess the possible transferability of the process.


RESULTS

The LOOP project demonstrated the recovery of Rare Earth (RE) elements from discarded fluorescent lamps, along with the recovery of glass and other by-products. The work was carried out at two French plants operated by coordinating beneficiary Rhodia (now a sector of the Solvay group), in La Rochelle (Charente Maritime) and Saint-Fons (Rhne-Alpes), using an innovative RE recycling process developed by Rhodia. This process had previously been tested at laboratory and pilot-scale. LOOP demonstrated and optimised both the upstream and downstream phases of the process in a commercial plant, to test its technical feasibility at the industrial scale.

During the LIFE project, the process enabled the recycling of 1 350 tons/year of rare earth oxides, glass and phosphates, with the valorisation of 90% of the RE elements contained in this waste. On the basis of 1 100 to 1 500 tons of waste per year (including 1 000 tons/year of phosphorescent powders and 100 to 500 tons of glass), the resulting recycled output was calculated as 188 tons of RE in oxide form (430 tons of nitrates); 100 to 500 tons of glass (by-product to be further processed by the glass industry); 800 tons of phosphate (by-product to be further processed by the phosphates industry); and 150 tons of residual waste.

The project successfully demonstrated how to turn complex waste into raw materials of a quality similar to raw ("first-life") products. Moreover, this specific source of RE (i.e., from the recycling of low-energy lamps) was totally unexploited in Europe before the project. A number of applications were identified for the phosphates and glass. However, the financial viability of the process was found to be linked to market fluctuations in the value of RE elements on world markets, which will impact the replicability and the transferability of the process.

The project results open up the possibility of exploiting a previously untapped urban mineral source of rare earth elements in Europe. Rare earths are essential to the development of electronic devices (e.g. LCD monitors) and green technologies (e.g. low-energy lamps), and European demand for RE is growing by 6% every year. The recycling of RE elements creates a new source of supply, so that European industry is no longer reliant on imports of RE elements. Solvay aims to become a leading European and international supplier of recycled RE material. The recycling of RE elements contributes to a more sustainable chemical sector, by reducing the exploitation of natural RE resources.

Aside from LOOP's ability to recycle up to 90% of RE from the waste stream, the process also removes mercury (Hg) from the phosphorescent powders obtained from fluorescent lamps. Low-energy lamps contain small amounts of mercury, an extremely hazardous material. The effluents generated by the recycling process have maximum mercury and dust concentrations (in liquid and atmospheric effluents, respectively) that are below the regulatory thresholds set by ADEME (0.05 mg/l and 0.05 mg/Nm3). Environmental benefits also derive from a reduction in the volume of hazardous waste sent to landfill. The projects findings could help meet targets for metal recycling set out in EU legislation, particularly Directive 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE); Directive 2006/66/EC on batteries and accumulators; and Directive 2000/53/EC on end-of-life vehicles. Most of the equipment types covered by these directives only include low quantities of RE, but these are products produced in large quantities with a short life-span (e.g. consumer electronics).

Tens of millions of lamps are disposed of each year in Europe, representing a major environmental challenge. Once collected, the lamps are sorted and recycled by specialised recycling companies that mainly valorise glass and metals. LOOP adds a significant contribution to this recycling chain, by developing an outlet for the phosphorescent powder, while providing a new source of raw RE material to a fast-growing industry. Solvay estimates that LOOP's main socio-economic impact may reside in an increased independence of France and Europe as regards RE supply (over which China still has a 95% monopoly).

Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Communication Plan (see "Read more" section).

ADMINISTRATIVE DATA


Reference: LIFE11 ENV/FR/000744
Acronym: LOOP
Start Date: 01/06/2012
End Date: 30/11/2014
Total Eligible Budget: 2,198,903 €
EU Contribution: 1,099,451 €
Project Location:

CONTACT DETAILS


Coordinating Beneficiary: RHODIA OPERATIONS S.A.S.
Legal Status: PCO
Address: 40, Rue De La Haie Coq, 93306, Aubervilliers, France
Contact Person: Frédéric CARENCOTTE
Email: Send Email
Website:


LIFE Project Map

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES ADDRESSED

THEMES

  • Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)
  • Industrial waste
  • Waste recycling

KEYWORDS

  • industrial waste
  • waste recycling

TARGET EU LEGISLATION

  • Directive 2000/53 - End-of life vehicles (18.09.2000)
  • Directive 2012/19 - Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) (04.07.2012)
  • Directive 2008/98 - Waste and repealing certain Directives (Waste Framework Directive) (19.11.2008)
  • COM(2015)614 - "Closing the loop - An EU action plan for the Circular Economy" (02.12.2015)
  • Directive 2008/12 - Batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators (Amending Directive 2006/66) (11.09.2008)

BENEFICIARIES

Name Type
RHODIA OPERATIONS S.A.S. Coordinator
None Participant

READ MORE