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Closing the loop: recycling for greater resource efficiency

By Laura Syrett
Published: Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Current recycling rates for valuable minerals and metals used in consumer products fall well short of technically possible levels, creating an unsustainable drag on resource efficiency. Laura Syrett talks to Outotec’s director of technology management, Markus Reuter, about his UN-backed report on the opportunities, limits and infrastructure for raw materials recycling.

Most of today’s high functioning consumer products contain complicated combinations of minerals, metals and other materials – many of which are innately and practically precious commodities.

 
Urban mine: waste streams of manufactured products like mobile phones
are rich secondary resources of valuable minerals and metals (source: Adrian Clark). 
Of the billions of tonnes of valuable minerals in circulation in appliances and devices across the world, a significant proportion ends up in landfill once the products containing them reach the end of their usable lives (EoL).

A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, “Recycling Rates of Metals”, published in 2011, found that EoL recycling rates for minerals including rare earth elements, lithium, boron and zirconium are less than 1% of their volume in waste streams.

At the other end of the scale, EoL recycling of metals like gold, silver, platinum and copper are all above 50%, but recovery rates still fall well short of technical potential, resulting in large tonnages being lost at a rapid rate.

According to Marcus Reuter, director of technology management at Finnish engineering group, Outotec Oyj, this wastage is due to the fact that the vast majority of supply chains are linear, rather than circular – a situation that is ultimately unsustainable in a world of finite resources.

“Sustainability is becoming so much more important; minerals and metals are part of the fabric of society, but fresh sources of these raw materials are becoming scarcer and more expensive to exploit,” Reuter told IM.

In order to boost historically low recycling rates, Reuter is championing a shift from a material-centric to a product-centric approach for salvaging these materials, in which recycling targets specific components of products at their EoL and devises ways to separate and recover them.

“It’s about closing the loop; taking valuable minerals out of waste manufactured products and putting them back into the cycle,” he says.

In April 2013, Reuter published a report entitled “Metal recycling: opportunities, limits and infrastructure” – another UNEP-backed initiative that he describes as being “more of a free textbook than a report”.

“It’s more than just words,” he explains. “It contains figures, practical steps and real life examples to show that sustainability can be achieved.”

Opportunities and limits

Available to download for free, Reuter’s UNEP report provides a techno-economic, product design and physics basis for assessing the availability of mineral resources in society and addressing the challenges of recycling increasingly complex products.

One of the main challenges facing modern recycling is the fact that the “designed mineralogy” found in manufactured products is often more complicated than the comparatively simple, primary mineralogy of geological deposits, meaning the valuable individual elements are harder to separate and recover.

A mobile phone containing a battery, for example, can contain more than 40 elements, including base metals and precious metals as well as critical industrial minerals like rare earths, graphite and lithium, that are intricately combined in alloys and compounds for reasons of functionality.

However, Reuter argues that waste manufactured items like phones, LEDs, batteries and LCD screens, should be considered as secondary resources, or “ urban mines”, which temporarily lock up minerals in the value chain and can be productively exploited by taking a product-centric approach.

“It comes down to creating systems that are more sustainable than the ones we have now – systems that incorporate efficient EoL collection of products, effective sorting and an optimum suite of physical separation, metallurgical technologies and infrastructure to recover metals from recyclates in an economically viable way,” he explains.

Product-centric thinking therefore requires linking technology with product design by understanding the relevant separation physics, thermodynamics and metallurgy behind different product types, because “if you don’t understand complex minerals, you can’t recover them,” Reuter says.

Human challenges

Aside from the technical challenges of designing recycling systems tailored to the complex composition of modern consumer products, Reuter says that there is also a need to change established ways of thinking about research and development in this field.

Reuter’s UNEP report was downloaded more than 5,000 times in the first year since its publication, but he says that even though the need to improve recycling is widely accepted, he faced resistance to his work from some within the mineral engineering community.

Part of the problem with making progress in this area, Reuter believes, is the unwillingness to share information.

“The way the mineral engineering industry, academia and research are set up encourages silo thinking. Everybody wants to win a Nobel Prize – it takes courage to step out of your area and share ideas,” he explains.

Protecting rather than sharing information means that much of the funding allocated to resource efficiency is wasted through duplication of research.

“The breadth is there, but not the depth,” Reuter says. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel; with the digitalisation of existing technology and systems, knowledge can be more easily accessed shared.”

Reuter also believes that the mineral processing sector needs to attract more students into the industry to study process engineering and physics, which will add fresh brain power to the drive for greater efficiency and sustainability.

“We can revitalise the significance of these industries for sustainability with a suitably inspiring explanation of the sometimes dry and difficult physics underpinning recycling,” his report states.

It also stresses the need for academic communities, as well as industry, to be adaptive to deal with the changing complexity of waste streams.

Recommendations

Reuter’s report makes a series of policy recommendations to legislators about improving sustainability and recycling rates, stressing that while a completely “circular economy” is an unattainable ideal, the notion offers a framework for systemic thinking about resource efficiency.

He calls for policy makers to take a wide view of recycling that takes into account the environmental, industrial and economic factors behind the industry, to create a level playing field in terms of the costs of recycling for businesses and to focus on promoting best available techniques (BATs) in recycling systems.

Reuter also suggests laying down carrot and stick incentives to meet recycling targets, such as economic rewards for meeting recycling targets and the implementation of “producer responsibility laws” that require manufacturers to make their products more amenable to recycling.

Perhaps even more controversially, he advocates cross-border transportation agreements allowing waste to be transported to international recycling centres in order to achieve economies of scale for recycling minor or “spice” metals, present in small quantities in manufactured products.

Private enterprise

Although Reuter acknowledges that the UN is a “great platform to spread the message” about the need for improving sustainability and ways to achieve it, he cautions that political backing for such initiatives does not always translate into meaningful action.

“There is lots of talking and hand waving, but often very little gets done. There is too much fluff surrounding this issue; the words are there but the actions are not,” he says.

The role of private technology companies is therefore vital in driving innovation and bringing solutions into the recycling industry.

Outotec, the Espoo, Finland-headquartered mineral processing company where Reuter works as an in-house expert in recycling and sustainable technology, describes sustainability as its “core value”, influencing both its thinking and its behaviour.

Recent Outotec initiatives include hosting seminars on rare earths sustainability in China and sustainable mining and metals processing in Mongolia in 2013. In 2014, the company was contracted to provide beneficiation technology for Tata Steel’s chromite tailings and was ranked third in the World Economic Forum’s Global 100 list of the most sustainable companies.

The company also awards sustainability prizes to young engineering students in an effort to encourage excellence in this area.

Since 2010, Outotec has published an annual sustainability report, detailing its corporate strategy, interaction with stakeholders, spending on research and development and assessing the “ecological footprint” of its operations.

“The aim should always be to minimise our footprint and maximise our handprint,” says Reuter.


The full report can be downloaded from the UNEP website: http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/MetalRecycling/tabid/106143/Default.aspx



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