Most of todays high functioning consumer products
contain complicated combinations of minerals, metals and other
materials many of which are innately and practically
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).
|Urban mine: waste streams of manufactured
products like mobile phones
are rich secondary resources of valuable minerals and
metals (source: Adrian Clark).
A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report,
Recycling Rates of Metals, published in 2011, found
recycling rates for minerals including rare earth
elements, lithium, boron
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
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.
Its 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
Its 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, Reuters 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
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
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
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
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
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 dont
understand complex minerals, you cant recover them,
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
Reuters 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
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
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.
Reuters 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
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
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.
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
The role of private technology companies is therefore vital
in driving innovation and bringing solutions into the recycling
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
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
Steels chromite tailings and was ranked third in the
World Economic Forums Global 100 list of the most
The company also awards sustainability prizes to young
engineering students in an effort to encourage excellence in
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
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: