Thousands of tonnes of shredded scrap metal from sources ranging from cars to construction debris arrive daily at metal recycling facilities in central England. The scrap is processed into individual materials and sold there. The mixture of metals, plastics and other materials passes through a complex maze of more than 100 conveyor belts, where it is further sorted in several different ways – it can float on water or be used by magnets and robots.
Sustainable Metal Recycling
But these are just some of the new technologies being used by European Metal Recycling (EMR). Changes in the world’s approach to environmentalism are expected to increase demand for metals, so metal recycling can help reduce carbon emissions and curb mining, Reuters reported.
The family-owned multinational EMR began operating eight decades ago with one scrap metal business. It is now focused on how to reduce the need to mine and process metals, thereby helping to protect the environment. It is therefore looking to streamline and improve the profitability of its processes.
With the growing demand for clean technologies such as electric cars and solar panels, there are growing concerns about the environmental impacts of mining and producing the metals needed, from damaging biodiversity to increasing emissions. Some industry insiders say recycling will become increasingly important as the global race to secure important minerals intensifies and countries seek to secure a secure supply of important metals while reducing the carbon footprint of their production.
In Europe, for example, 40 to 75 percent of the metals needed for clean energy industries such as electric cars and wind turbines could come from recycling by 2050. But the continent needs to increase investment in recycling and make it more efficient, industry group Eurometaux said last year.
Steel is the world’s most used metal, responsible for seven to nine per cent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Using one tonne of recycled steel instead of producing new steel will prevent 1.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions, the mining of 1.4 tonnes of iron ore, 740 kilogrammes of coal and 120 kilogrammes of limestone, according to environmental NGO Bellona.
Meanwhile, the most recent comprehensive research on metal recycling rates, published in 2011 in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, found that only 18 of the 60 metals studied had a global recycling rate of more than 50 percent.
EMR was founded in the 1940s and now has about 160 plants in the United States and Europe. The company invests in research to recover as many materials as possible, meaning it can generate more profit while dumping less waste in landfill. This is a practice that is costly and damaging to the environment. The company is also in talks with manufacturers, such as automotive designers, to create products that are easier to recycle.
A challenge for recyclers is the nature of modern materials used in a range of products, from smartphones to cars, because they are difficult to disassemble and recycle. According to a 2021 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and US carmaker Ford, typical modern cars contain 76 different chemical elements.
Opportunities & Challenges
The International Energy Agency (IEA) reports that recycling processes for traditional metals such as copper and aluminium are more established than recycling the metals needed for the energy transition. This applies to lithium and rare earth metals. Rare earth metals are used in low concentrations in high-tech devices such as neodymium to make powerful magnets for electric cars and wind turbines. Many of these metals are difficult to separate from surrounding materials and require new recycling technologies. Experts report that there is often a lack of information on the amount of materials used in products and where they are found. These are fundamental issues for the development of the recycling sector, they say. Experts also point out that recycling technologies and expertise need to be developed at the point where products have reached the end-of-life stage. This is often on another continent, far from where they were made and where people understand how they were assembled.
In the short term, recycling will play only a small role in meeting demand for some metals such as lithium because products that contain them, such as lithium-ion batteries in electric cars, are only at the beginning of their life cycle, said researcher Jamie Speirs of King’s College London. But for now, he said, strict government regulations can ensure the development of recycling infrastructure. An example of this is lead, which has one of the highest recycling rates among metals thanks to regulations designed globally to prevent health problems associated with lead-acid batteries, Speirs added.
Another driver of recycling growth, analysts say, is the prices that companies like EMR can charge for recycled materials and that they pay to those who supply them with scrap. If the price is high, recycling will increase. ERM predicts that green premiums will make recycled metals cheaper, and ultimately more profitable for companies, than producing new ones.