iNEMI’s Value Recovery Project demonstrates a circular economy for hard drives

iNEMI’s Value Recovery Project demonstrates a circular economy for hard drives

September 3, 2019
Press Release: iNEMI

Five demonstration projects go beyond the theoretical to prove feasibility of major value recovery pathways

The International Electronics Manufacturing Initiative (iNEMI) has published a report by the consortium’s Value Recovery from Used Electronics project participants, describing how the project successfully used end-of-life hard disk drives (HDDs) to demonstrate a viable process toward the development of a multi-stakeholder circular economy.

Project activities focused on three areas:

  1. Construction of a set of decision trees to identify the options (pathways) at each step in the value recovery chain in the context of a circular economy and what information each of the stakeholders needs in order to pursue higher value recovery along a given pathway.
  2. Development of economic models, life-cycle assessments and logistics models to determine which value recovery options generate the highest value/profit by type and size of drive. These models provide the basis for business decision-making by the stakeholders, both individually and collectively, as part of supply chains.
  3. Demonstration projects to prove the efficacy of major critical-to-market circular economy pathways. The demonstration teams were able to successfully: reuse magnet assemblies, recover intact magnets for non-HDD use, make magnets from magnets and shred, make rare earth element (REE) oxides from HDD magnets and develop business models that would allow functioning HDDs to be reused/resold after secure, verifiable, economically viable data wiping.

“This report represents a significant body of work,” said Marc Benowitz, CEO of iNEMI. “It details the well-coordinated efforts of organizations from across the electronics supply chain that worked together on a practical application of circular economy concepts for electronics. These electronics manufacturing companies, national labs, universities and research institutes were able to successfully demonstrate that a circular economy can be a reality for used electronic products. We recognize the many contributions from the individuals and organizations involved in this effort and thank them for helping achieve such meaningful results.”

The Value Recovery project was organized explicitly using the Ostrom Framework as a self-managing, sustainable system. The project team went beyond the theoretical in demonstrating major value recovery pathways for used HDDs in a circular economy. This systems approach has never been done before and, as far as the team knows, the Ostrom Framework has never been used to design a multi-stakeholder system for self-managing and creating value from a man-made common pool resource — in this case, HDDs.

“A major emphasis of this work was going beyond theory to identify existing economic and technology challenges to achieving sustained circularity,” said Bill Olson, formerly with Seagate Technology and co-leader of the Value Recovery project. “In areas where we identified gaps, we worked to bridge those gaps via demonstrations. Our multi-stakeholder teams’ demonstrations overcame gaps by applying existing technology in new ways, developing new technologies, or capturing existing but as-yet-unrecovered value to achieve sustainable supply via the Ostrom Framework.”

The work accomplished by the demonstration project teams is especially significant. These demonstrations proved the effectiveness of multiple recovery pathways for reusing HDDs, including business models needed to securely destroy data so that functioning hard disk drives can be sold to new users.

“The most ambitious goal of the project team was true circularity at the highest possible value — making hard drives from hard drives,” commented Carol Handwerker, Professor of Materials Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University, and co-leader of the Value Recovery project. “The team was able to accomplish this goal, as well as create all the other value recovery pathways needed to make a circular HDD life cycle a reality.”

“Today, almost all of the value of HDDs is lost by shredding them into mixed aluminum scrap sold at US$0.25/lb,” Handwerker added. “This is in contrast to the significantly higher value recovery that this iNEMI project demonstrated is possible, from HDD and component reuse, to recovery of REEs as magnet powders, oxides or metals to turn them back into RE magnets. Establishing that all of these pathways can be realized economically, logistically and with lower environmental impact is a significant accomplishment.”

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