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EU readies new recycling goals for permanent magnets in white goods, wind turbines

8 months ago 28

The EU is moving forward with new legislation to boost the recycling of rare earths contained in permanent magnets, used in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles as well as home appliances like washing machines and microwave ovens.

Last month, the European Parliament voted on its position on the EU’s proposed Critical Raw Materials Act, which aims to bolster EU self-sufficiency in the minerals needed for the green and digital transitions.

The draft legislation, which still needs to be agreed by EU member states before it becomes law, introduces aspirational targets for the extraction, processing and recycling of key raw materials in Europe in a bid to reduce the EU’s reliance on imports from countries like China.

Among the new provisions put forward in the legislation are measures to boost the recycling of permanent magnets that are used in wind turbines, electric vehicles and home appliances like heat pumps and washing machines.

“Permanent magnets are incorporated in a wide variety of products, with wind turbines and electric vehicles being the most important and fastest-growing applications,” says the European Parliament report, approved in September.

New EU rules are spelt out in Article 27 of the draft regulation, which obliges manufacturers to disclose information about “the weight, location and chemical composition of all individual permanent magnets” included in their products and provide instructions on how to access and remove them.

Article 28, meanwhile, requires manufacturers to “make publicly available on a free access website the share of neodymium, dysprosium, praseodymium, terbium, boron, samarium, nickel and cobalt” contained in their products so that those materials can be collected and recycled.

The European Commission would subsequently adopt specific implementing rules requesting minimum shares of recycled materials to be incorporated in the manufacturing of new permanent magnets.

These rules should be adopted “no later than 31 December 2030” in a series of special delegated acts “laying down minimum shares” for critical raw materials recovered from post-consumer waste, the draft regulation says.

Automakers worried, wind industry receptive

Automakers, however, are not thrilled by the new recycling requirements and voiced their concerns through the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA).

“ACEA has significant reservations regarding the proposal for conformity requirements related to the permanent magnets,” the trade association told Euractiv, drawing attention to contradictory requirements between Article 40 which introduces immediate changes to the EU’s type-approval regulation for vehicles and rules about the circularity of permanent magnets contained in Article 27.

“European vehicle manufacturers need consistency between the Critical Raw Material Act requirements, end-of-life obligations, and changes in type-approval legislation – and sufficient lead time for implementation,” ACEA told Euractiv in emailed comments.

Wind turbine manufacturers, for their part, are not opposed to new circularity goals but say the top priority should be to first put in place a functioning recycling supply chain before specific targets can be considered.

“Today very little recycling of permanent magnets is taking place due to the limited volumes of turbines containing permanent magnets being decommissioned,” says Christoph Zipf from Wind Europe, a trade association.

Most wind turbines being decommissioned today would not contain permanent magnets, which are used mostly in offshore installations and only started being introduced around 2014, Zipf explained.

And because offshore wind turbines are designed to last around 30 years, the materials won’t be available for a while.

“There is likely not a lot of material that will be available for recycling by 2030 let alone earlier. It’s therefore essential that any recycling requirement must be set at specific applications,” Zipf told Euractiv.

Eventually, though, Wind Europe believes the potential for recycling will be significant. “With a proper waste framework in place, it should be feasible to sort and collect 100% of the permanent magnets and prepare them for recycling,” Zipf said.

Home appliances

Another key industry targeted by the new recycling rules is makers of home appliances like heat pumps, washing machines, tumble driers, microwaves, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers, which would have to carry a label to inform recyclers whether they contain permanent magnets or not.

Today, some producers already use magnets made from recycled critical raw materials, says Paolo Falcioni, director general of Applia, a trade association representing white goods manufacturers like Whirlpool, Dyson, Miele or Electrolux.

However, recycling these magnets remains a challenge at the moment, he adds.

“Let’s take the case of a washing machine where permanent magnets can be found in the motor. Based on today’s practice, the motor is normally shredded along with the permanent magnet which does not get separated from other fractions and is therefore not recovered,” he told Euractiv.

According to him, the first step is to ensure all electric and electronic waste is effectively collected and close the knowledge gaps about the quality and quantity of secondary raw materials recovered from consumer waste.

But Falcioni says 2030 might be too early to introduce mandatory targets for recycled content to be incorporated in new household appliances, as suggested by the draft EU regulation.

“Targeting the end of 2030 will already be a huge challenge for the industry as there is still a long way to go to separate permanent magnets from other fractions, during recycling,” Falcioni said in emailed comments.

“The development of new recycling technologies would need to follow along with ensuring that the needed quantities of recycled material are available, in the right quality. If these requirements are not met, any recycled content target would prove unrealistic,” he added.

Recyclers cautious

Recyclers are cautious too, saying the EU should not put the cart before the horse.

At present, recycling of permanent magnets takes place only in China and Japan, says the European Recycling Industries Confederation (EuRIC). In Europe, meanwhile, only experimental pilots are being conducted – one of them in the Grenoble area in Southern France.

“There are several reasons why recycling is still limited. The main ones are the absence of efficient collection systems, the prohibitive costs of building rare earth recycling capacities, technological problems, product lifetimes, chemical developments and commercial viability,” says Rikarnto Bountis, technical advisor at EuRIC.

For recyclers, the first step is to ensure sufficient amounts of magnets are available for recycling in the first place – which means ramping up the collection and sorting of used home appliances, electric car batteries and wind turbines.

“The real issue for us, at first, is to be able to access the magnets that have a viable model [in terms of sorting and logistics costs associated with recycling],” Bountis told Euractiv. “The more difficult it is to access them the more the recycling cost increases,” he explains.

For EuRIC, the main consideration is to make the recycling of permanent magnets economically viable as a business. In that respect, the industry backs European Commission plans to set targets for recycled raw materials to be incorporated in new permanent magnets, saying this will help create demand and eventually contribute to lowering costs.

Work on recycled content targets for permanent magnets “has to advance as much as possible with 2027 being an ambitious but realistic date,” EuRIC told Euractiv in emailed comments.

At the same time, EuRIC also warns against setting arbitrary recycling targets, saying those must be preceded by an in-depth impact study to assess the technical feasibility and economic models needed to achieve them.

“All in all, we believe that a recycling target of 100%, whatever the material, is not something feasible and will end up doing more harm than good to the recycling industry,” Bountis warned.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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