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E-waste, a gold mine of opportunities

In France, a small company has made a name for itself within the increasingly competitive electronic waste recycling market.

Joël Cossardeaux, Les Echos (France)


Serge Kimbel considers waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) the same way medieval alchemist Nicolas Flamel once considered lead: as a material akin to gold. Kimbel is executive director of Morphosis, a business based in northern France. Over the past 10 years, his company has cashed in on the tiny treasures – silver, platinum, copper – hidden within the cards and hard disks in our discarded computers, cell phones and other gadgets.

“We’re not the only ones to operate in this market. The mining industry has also started recovering these metals. But in terms of price, we are more competitive because our materials are of a very high purity and are retransformed according to the specific needs of manufacturers,” explained the founder of this SME of around 50 employees.

Each year, 25,000 tonnes of WEEE are crushed and ground up at the firm’s two sites in Le Havre in order to recover their precious contents. Morphosis uses an industrial process that combines mechanical, chemical and thermal treatments to extract the “ore” from this waste, 80 percent of which is delivered dismantled. This sector has strong potential for growth, given that the market for these electronic goods is growing by “eight to nine percent per year,” Kimbel said. European Union forecasters predict that within its borders alone, the volume of waste to be treated could reach 12 million tonnes by 2020.

While this mine of opportunities looks promising, the treatment of e-waste is becoming more and more complex. Volumes of WEEE are increasing, yet the concentrations of rare metals that they contain are growing scarcer, and competition for them is heating up. Asian countries, the biggest producers of this waste stream, are increasingly active in this market.

It’s a domain where financial interests are converging with environmental ones. Extraction industries are highly energy consuming and release huge amounts of CO2, making them the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet. Gold represents only 0.0011 grammes for every tonne of the earth’s crust – and so mountains must be moved to uncover the rare metal.

When it comes to the salvaged treasures of the circular economy, the odds of striking gold are a lot higher. Take mobile phones, for example: one tonne of electronic cards can contain up to one kilogramme of gold, five kilogrammes of silver, nine kilogrammes of tantalum and 250 kilogrammes of copper. A recent study by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe) revealed that in 2012, barely a quarter of the electronic cards collected were actually processed. This translates to a loss in value of 124 million euros (USD 143 million) for the unextracted gold alone.

“We’re working to ensure we have the lowest energy consumption and CO2 emissions possible. It’s important for our financial sustainability,” Kimbel noted. When Morphosis burns the plastic from memory cards, the heat created is reused in the processing of rare metals and also to heat the business’s premises in Le Havre. The buildings that make up Morphosis’s new unit in Fécamp, Normandy, will be entirely passive, largely thanks to the photovoltaic electricity generated there. The company is investing five million euros into the unit, with the aim of treating a wide variety of products, obtaining a high recovery yield and keeping energy consumption low. Morphosis believes in investing on innovation. “R&D represents considerably more than 10 percent of our turnover,” which reached 12 million euros in 2017, Kimbel said. His ambition is to make Morphosis the biggest recycling site for electronic cards in France.

One drawback is that the company is seeking its supplies from zones that are increasingly further afield: Morphosis gets its raw materials from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Clearly there are consequences for the firm’s carbon footprint. However, Kimbel said, this consideration should be put into perspective. “Le Havre’s port enables us to make shipments by sea,” he noted. “We make huge savings compared to using road transport, and the ratio of CO2 per tonne transported is significantly lower.”

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