Recycling, mostly from scrap generated during the manufacturing of beryllium products, may account for as much as 10% of apparent consumption [USGS 2009].
Also, copper beryllium or nickel beryllium alloy scrap is directly recycled back to produce new alloy since it is attractive from both an economic and energy conservation point of view. The pure beryllium metal components used in technological applications have extremely long lifetimes, and, therefore, return to the recycle stream very slowly. Some, because of applications in space or because of their sensitive military nature, do not return at all. When these components finally return, they can be easily recycled.
However, recovery of beryllium metal from copper beryllium alloys that are included in components of post consumer scrap (like electronics) is difficult because of the small size of the components, difficulty of separation, overall low beryllium content per device and the low beryllium content in the copper beryllium alloy (average 1.25 % beryllium).
The alloy makes up approximately 0.15% of the copper used in electrical equipment which, during pre-processing of end-of-life equipment, is collected together with other copper in the scrap and diluted to ~ 2 ppm in the copper recycling stream. In responsible copper recycling processes, the extremely small quantities of beryllium are immobilized in slags. Therefore, most of the scrap is recycled for its copper value, since beryllium recovery is not economically feasible. As a result, for old scrap the recycling flow value is quite high (~75%), but the recycled content and particularly the End-of Life Recycling Rate (EOL RR) material specific rate are very low.
In an effort to quantify the potential for worker exposure to airborne beryllium, a case study was conducted at four precision stamping facilities processing copper beryllium.
These facilities performed a variety of mechanical and thermal activities during the manufacture of beryllium-containing components for the electronic industry. The study found that one hundred percent (100%) of the 145 samples obtained from mechanical, thermal and support operations were below 0.2 µg/m3. The following is a summary of the results:
Additionally, a study was conducted in 2010 at a leading post-consumer electronic recycling facility in the EU. This facility processes waste electronic products and separates the materials into several value streams including, plastics, steel, copper, aluminium and precious metals. The study involved collecting personal breathing zone samples on workers for beryllium. All results were below the limit of detection or the limit of quantification and well below any regulatory limit.
It is clearly evident that electronic recycling processes within the EEA do not present an exposure hazard to workers.
Additionally, the UNEP Mobile Phone Partnership Initiative (MPPI) Project 3.1 (March 2009) report stated that, “Beryllium is not an absolute barrier to environmentally sound material recovery and recycling, but it is a consideration in selection of appropriate recovery processes and facilities.”
The well managed copper recycling processes that currently exist in the EEA, coupled with the small amounts of beryllium metal that are present in electronic wastes, support the need to continue to advance the use of beryllium-containing materials in electronic products where miniaturisation, decreased raw material utilisation and improved energy efficiency are drivers in product designs and consumer expectations.
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