Mining electronics waste

Think of the largest cruise ship. Then imagine how much it weighs – just over 100,000 tonnes, in fact. Now think about 500 of those ships, and what they weigh. That is the staggering amount of new electronic waste that we generate every year.

Over 53 million tonnes in 2020 alone, according to the Global E-waste Monitor. And every year there will be more, with 74 million tonnes projected for 2030. But today, only about 10 million tonnes of e-waste gets truly recycled, meaning we are recovering the metals and other valuable materials, including nickel. The remaining 43 million tonnes of e-waste, estimated to contain recoverable material worth around US$55 billion, is not recycled, and is landfilled instead. Cellphones, computers, TVs, appliances and other electronic components which we use every day are finding an unsatisfactory end-of-life.

Complex recovery

There is nickel in the e-waste, although the amount depends on the particular electronic components being recycled. Recovery is quite complex, as nickel is a “social metal”, mixing well with most other metals.

Typically, the nickel content may be between 0.5 and 2% of the total weight of a component, far less than its copper and iron content. Nickel is used in electronics for its key attributes, for example as shown by its use in Multi-Layer Ceramic Capacitors (MLCCs).

The precious metals – gold, palladium and silver – even if present in much smaller quantities, may have a larger monetary value. But in the circular economy, we need to recover as much as we can, and the Nickel Institute members are doing their part.

Proprietary processing

Each nickel producer involved in recycling has its own and often proprietary processing route for e-waste. It starts with pre-processing, as e-waste contains a large amount of plastics, ceramics and other non-metallic materials that have a separate path – the metallic fraction is what is of prime interest. Even there, steel in appliances can be magnetically separated out and sent to steel mills for direct recycling. Shredding of, for example, circuit boards and even whole cellphones into small pieces can help in the separation process. Some companies will have a separate recycling line for the various types of batteries, the supply of which for recycling is expected to increase rapidly as electric vehicle batteries come to the end of their life.

The processes involved in recovery of the metals, copper, nickel and the precious metals, involve pyrometallurgy (high temperature), hydrometallurgy (dissolution in acids) or both. Some companies can recover other metals used in electronics, such as indium, selenium, bismuth and other metals present in even smaller amounts.

Important raw material

E-waste has been handled by some of our members for over 30 years now. It is an important raw material, and they are willing to process it in greater quantities in the future. This material, now waste, mined many years ago, can be made into new and essential electronic components to be enjoyed by us all. Even though the amount of nickel in e-waste is relatively small, the nickel industry is a valuable partner with society in accomplishing the goal of creating a circular economy.

In the circular economy, we need to recover as much as we can, and the Nickel Institute members are doing their part:


Our processes are based on complex lead/copper/nickel metallurgy, using these base metals as collectors for precious metals and other metals, so called "impurities", such as antimony, bismuth, tin, selenium, tellurium and indium.”

Sumitomo Metal Mining

“E-scrap, including LIB-scrap, is placed in a copper smelting converter after pretreatment. After that, it is separated into crude nickel sulfate by electrolysis and sent to a nickel refinery to become pure nickel sulfate, which is used as a raw material for batteries.”


“Thanks to the modular structure of our new recycling systems, we are able to react very flexibly to the market and needs and thus return more and more metal-containing materials to the material cycle.”


“Vale traditionally has pyrometallurgically processed recycled materials but is evaluating hydrometallurgical routes as well. We have a robust flowsheet with several options to process this material and will continue to advance our ability to process Black Mass.”


“Our Rönnskär smelter in northern Sweden is one of the world's largest recyclers of metal from electronic material. The facility also minimises its emissions and generates district heating from electronic material.”


“We have recycled more than one million tonnes of electronic scrap since the 1990s.”

This article was first published in our Nickel Magazine VOL 36-3, in December 2021.

More on the actions undertaken by NI Members at environmental, social and governance levels such as energy efficiency, reduction of air and water pollution emissions, land reclamation and reforestation, waste management, increased use of recycled metals ... as well as community initiatives, occupational health and safety measures and human rights strategies: