Get talking – holding on to waste

Materials World magazine
4 Mar 2020

Sending valuable metal waste abroad means the UK is losing billions of pounds each year, instead of retaining and reusing scrap as a resource. Inprotec Managing Director, Chris Oldroyd FIMMM, talks about the alternatives.

At a time of high commodity prices and worrying shortages of industrial metals in the UK, you would think there would be more focus than ever before on retrieving and refining the valuable metals contained within industrial and household waste. But you would be wrong. The reality is very different indeed.

A chronic lack of support and investment from the government in the UK’s metal recycling and extraction facilities is resulting in billions of pounds of valuable metal waste being shipped abroad to countries better equipped to take advantage of this precious scrap.

While figures vary, best estimates suggest the UK is shipping approximately 9.5 million tonnes of scrap metal overseas every year. This includes precious metals such as platinum group metals (PGM), gold and silver, as well as useful base metals such as copper and lead, and others used in high-tech gadgetry such as lithium, rare earths and cobalt.

That there is such a huge amount of scrap metal should hardly come as a surprise – products containing non-ferrous metals are extremely common and used by most of us on a daily basis. And it is not just base metals, such as copper, that are commonly used, printed circuit boards (PCBs) which feature in the electrical equipment we all use every day contain a small amount of precious metal.

The fact that the UK has always shipped such valuable metal waste off to Europe and beyond is a travesty, and one the government needs to urgently address if we are to achieve a true circular economy.

Such practice is irresponsible as well as being economically and environmentally damaging. A 21st Century UK should be taking accountability and responsibility for effectively recycling and retrieving such valuable waste. These metals are finite, and in some cases increasingly rare, yet they are being treated in the UK like they are of little value and consequence, when the opposite is true. We are effectively flushing millions of tonnes of valuable metal waste down the drain at a time when there is unprecedented strain on the world’s resources and rising commodity prices.

Last October, reported that the price of copper, common in battery production, was set to soar by 250%. And in January 2020, we saw reports by the BBC, that the price of the precious metal palladium, which is a key component in the catalytic converters that feature in the cars we all drive, had jumped by more than 25% in the previous two weeks, and almost doubled in value over the last year.

The reason for this stark hike in price was clear – demand for palladium outstrips supply and has done for some time.

Such waste is costing us dearly. We are losing out on billions of pounds of value to the economy at a time when we could really do with such a boost. And the cost is just as great, if not greater, from an environmental perspective, with the UK using one of the most polluting forms of transport, ships, to transport huge volumes of waste daily to countries as far afield as Japan.

If such a practice was not already highly unsustainable, it is likely that, following Brexit, we will see it become even more costly to dispose of our waste in this way to European neighbours who boast more advanced metal retrieval facilities than our own, including Germany, Sweden and Belgium.

For a nation as forward-thinking and as technologically advanced as the UK to have fallen so far behind many western and eastern countries in terms of how we handle metal waste is a scandal. Yes, there are a few facilities in the UK that focus on retrieving and refining specific metals, but there is not a single multi-metal facility that is capable of recovering and refining all valuable metals. It is high time this changed.

Certainly, we have the technological capabilities, for instance at Inprotec, the business I run, which provides metal retrieval and extraction equipment to refineries the world over. What we are missing is the support and investment from the government to make such an operation economically viable, as currently, it is not. It costs a considerable amount of money to extract and refine metal waste, and it is only commercially viable if it is done on a large scale. Unfortunately, the facilities that exist in the UK currently are not big enough, or equipped with the right multi-metal processing technologies, to effectively handle the amount of waste needed for such an operation to be commercially viable. The UK possesses plants to sort and shred metal waste but lacks the full-scale extractive metallurgy facility required to create a circular economy.

Quite simply, this Conservative government needs to demonstrate a commitment to creating a truly circular green economy by putting its money where its mouth is and making a multi-million pound grant available to create a multi-metal recycling and retrieval facility. Such a move would also help to attract private investment, bringing together the brains and resources required to fundamentally change the UK’s existing approach to managing valuable metal waste. At the same time, we also need subsidies in place to ensure that those companies currently recycling metals can do so without fear of going bust while trying to meet the demands of regulation, labour laws, and fuel and chemical costs.

It is not about doing what is easiest, it is about doing what is right – right by the public, by the economy and the environment. It should not just be about metals either – greater government funding would act as a catalyst to drive important research and development looking at how we better manage problematic waste, such as plastics. Yes, the recent Environmental Bill to stop plastic rubbish exports to less developed countries was a step in the right direction, but we now need to see sustained investment from the government to ensure we have the right infrastructure in place to effectively manage all of this waste.

The current government in the UK has a real challenge on its hands – but it also has a huge opportunity to right the wrongs of previous governments and show the rest of the world that we take our environmental commitments seriously.

Rhetoric is no longer enough, action is required to preserve the future of a vital industry, and we need to see it now.