Raw materials: Not the next gold rush, but…

Many commentators have reflected upon growing global concerns over the availability of secure and adequate supplies of the minerals and metals that are needed for economic growth.

Raw materials: Not the next gold rush, but…

Use of most raw materials has increased steadily over the last 50 years. And demand is expected to grow further in response to the burgeoning global population, economic progress and the requirements of environmental technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles.

Of particular concern are critical raw materials (CRMs), so called because of their economic importance and risk of supply shortage. Defining these CRMs is not straightforward, but the list includes antimony, cobalt, graphite, indium, platinum group metals, rare earth elements, tantalum, and tungsten. Key economic sectors in Europe such as the automotive, aerospace, renewable energy and electronic industries are highly dependent on these raw materials. And access to them is fundamental for the development of innovative environmental technologies and the broader digital agenda.

Research has shown that the games consoles, mobile phones and other electronic devices that we throw away or hoard in drawers contain critical raw materials (CRMs) and precious metals. WRAP research has also shown that almost 40% of electrical products that are thrown away still go to landfill. Despite major improvements in collecting WEEE over the last 10 years, current recovery techniques are not yet sophisticated enough to extract the very small quantities of CRMs in each product: a staggering amount of resources are therefore being lost.

Whilst electronics manufacturers should ensure that products are designed with CRMs that can be removed, repaired or recovered easily, and treatment operators must continue to investigate more advanced recovery techniques, gaining access to sufficient quantities of CRMs will determine whether we can recover them economically and sustainably. We are about to investigate further how this can be done.

Wrap announced in October that it is leading a major, multi-national project to research the most effective recovery of raw materials from electrical products. With trials taking place in the UK, Italy, Germany and Turkey, the project will focus on CRM recovery. The aim is to boost the recovery of CRMs from our gadgets and appliances by 5% and to explore how collection methods – kerbside collections, retailer take-back schemes or postal returns – can contribute to the successful return of CRMs to the market.

If CRMs can add further value to WEEE collection systems and supply chains, it will be a welcome boost to an industry experiencing challenging times. As rock bottom commodity prices and the closure of steel plants show, this sector needs all the help it can get.

Scott Butler is regional director for the UK & Ireland at the European Recycling Platform (ERP), which offers producer compliance for WEEE, batteries and packaging in the UK, and across the rest of Europe and beyond.

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