Innovative metal recycling improves resource efficiency
When China throttled the export of rare earth metals to Japan in 2010, global market prices increased dramatically. All over the world, governments took initiatives to increase the security of supply of both earth metals and other critical metals. At the same time, companies invested in ways of becoming less dependent on imports from China. One of the components of the countries’ policy documents was to promote better recycling.
There are a number of issues of principle concerning the recycling of critical metals: societal interest, corporate profitability, and innovation. Several of the issues are relevant for the recycling of other valuable metals as well. Resource efficiency is also a political goal for, among others, Sweden and the EU which is why it is interesting to study policy initiatives in this field and note what has happened since 2010–2011, when interest was at its height. Germany, the USA, Japan, China, Switzerland and the region of Flanders in Belgium are particularly interesting in this context.
Germany has been a driving force for the EU’s raw materials strategy and resource efficiency efforts. The German government presented a programme for resource efficiency in February 2012 (ProgRess) of which the recycling of critical metals was an important element. A recycling system with refundable deposits for mobile phones was discussed. Innovation programmes like r3 and r4 support technological developments. Germany’s Federal Environment Agency, UBA, has proposed a tightening of EU product and waste legislation to stimulate the recycling of critical metals.
The USA’s Critical Materials Strategy from 2010 calls for more recycling, reuse and more efficient use. Public funding is used e.g. to develop new materials for batteries, engines and generators. The largest and most important investment is the Critical Materials Institute which brings experts together from national laboratories, universities and businesses to address all parts of the strategy and speed up the commercialisation of new materials and techniques.
Recycling and substituting rare metals are part of Japan’s mineral strategy. Legislation, fees and information are identified as being the most important policy instruments for stimulating recycling and the development of substitute materials. Extensive support is also being given to research and development, above all to substitute materials, while some support goes to demonstration plants for innovative recycling systems.
China has about 45 demonstration areas for ”urban mining” with the potential to recycle more than 21 million tons of waste. Recycling critical metals is part of the strategy to become a circular economy and there is extensive ongoing innovation within this field.
In Switzerland, recycling critical metals is seen as being a matter of priority. The Ministry of the Environment in Switzerland is reviewing the country’s legislation on electronic waste, VREG. One of the aims is to encourage the recycling of critical metals. The proposal gives the Ministry of the Environment the right to impose the collection of electronic components in cars, and the intermediate storage and separate recycling of the components.
Flanders in Belgium has an ambitious programme for the sustainable handling of materials. Taking steps to improve the collection of electronic components, the control of illegal exports from ports, and demands for certified recycling is especially important for critical metals. The company Umicore has a plant in Antwerp that plays a prominent role in the development of technology.
Some preliminary conclusions can be drawn on the basis of observations from other countries.
A number of governments and parliaments have taken a positive stance to the recycling of critical metals in order to improve resource efficiency and security of supplies. The environmental arguments for and against vary for different metals but, for instance, the recycling of neodymium would seem to be linked to environmental benefits. A number of methods have been developed for that sort of recycling, some of them being the result of publicly funded research and innovation programmes. However, commercialisation is moving slowly. The prices of these metals have dropped dramatically in recent years.
At the moment, governments are having to choose either to change their earlier general goals or to take more measures to support commercialisation. If there is a political will to move forward, some possible policy measures could be:
- Increased support to demonstration plants.
- Continued and extended cooperation between e.g. electronics companies and their networks, like WEEE 2020 within the EU’s innovation partnership.
- Demands for the obligatory sorting and removing of components like electric motors and circuit boards.
- New product rules, like the EU’s ecodesign directive to facilitate recycling.
- Support to the development of standards for information about critical metals in products and possibly demands for such information in particularly urgent goods flows.
- Further development of existing systems of manufacturer responsibility for, among other things, electronics and cars so that certain critical metals are recycled Investigate whether existing economic policy instruments can be adapted to promote recycling (like the Advanced Recycling Fee in Switzerland).
- More international cooperation, both of a voluntary nature (e.g. the annual meetings between USA-Japan-EU) and further developed conventions for goods and waste.
- An elaborated view of the ”governance” of global metal flows to facilitate sustainable supply chains and innovation for resource efficiency.
In Europe, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium stand out as the countries where discussions about potential interventions have come the furthest. If Sweden would like to do more in this field, it could be appropriate to cooperate with the authorities and ministries in those countries.