Mining companies stress the need to rethink approach to recycling

Recycling and sustainable production have become topics that mining companies have had to face up to, the audience at Mines and Money’s Resourcing Tomorrow conference heard

During the November 29-December 1 conference in London, multiple sessions were dedicated to the subject of the circular economy, its role in filling the supply gap and its connection with the mining industry.

“In order to keep the world’s resources, we will have to achieve a total recycling rate of 80-90% for raw materials by 2040,” Konrad von Szczepanski, partner and director of The Boston Consulting Group, said at a panel during the conference.

According to a report by the United Nations International Resource Panel, less than one-third of the 60 metals studied had a recycling rate above 50%.

Base metals are at a competitive advantage in terms of recyclability compared with many other metals, since many are readily recyclable materials. Aluminium, for example, is “infinitely recyclable,” Roy Harvey, chief executive of Alcoa, said, and lead acid batteries have “achieved a recycling rate of almost 99%” according to Kunal Sinha, Glencore’s head of recycling.

But various panelists were keen to stress that more can be done, in terms of educating the public and investors, improving recycling legislation and investing in renewable energy projects, because recycled material will not meet growing demand. “I don’t use the word ‘green’ aluminium - it doesn’t exist yet. Everyone can do better,” Chris Bayliss, Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI) director of standards, said.

Low-carbon aluminium has grown in prominence within the market though, with increasing numbers of consumers looking to acquire material to support their sustainability targets. Fastmarkets prices a low-carbon differential on both primary aluminium and value-added products in the European market, with both products currently trading at a modest premium.

Fastmarkets assessed the aluminium low-carbon differential P1020A, Europe at $10-30 per tonne on December 2.

Global mining companies, such as Alcoa, Glencore and Boliden, were keen to emphasize their recycling efforts.

“We already recycle one million tonnes of chips and electronics,” Sinha said about Glencore, who also recycles copper, zinc, nickel and lead.

“I like to think of us as the Glencore you don’t know” Sinha added.

Glencore has been particularly aggressive in the battery recycling space alongside base metals, with the company signing strategic partnerships with companies such as Britishvolt and Li-Cycle to produce nickel and cobalt from ‘black mass’.

But one issue Sinha identified for recycling base metals was dealing with legislation in regions such as Europe, which add to business costs and can disincentivise producers.

If a material such as copper has reached the end of its life and needs to be transported back to the factory for recycling it must be labeled a “waste product,” and this makes transporting costs more expensive. According to a Glencore study, “the cost would be 2.6 times the initial cost of transporting.”

The transportation of “waste products” is a contentious issue for the scrap recycling market, with the Environment Committee of the European Parliament recently voting to tighten rules on the export of material classified as waste.

Another issue highlighted during panel discussions was a misunderstanding surrounding how much material is available to be recycled.

Mikael Staffas, Boliden’s chief executive officer, noted that the long life of certain products within the market provides a challenge to the availability of scrap.

“If you put copper into a high-voltage environment, it lasts for 30-40 years. So when you look at the potential amount of copper you can recycle, you need to look at how much copper was supplied 30-40 years ago,” Staffas said.

This means people can overestimate the amount of material that is viable to be recycled.

The result of this is that the production of primary materials is still crucial to meeting the emerging supply gap for critical materials such as copper and aluminium.

Speaking on the aluminium side, Harvey noted “when we think about the growth in aluminium demand, there is a lot of space for recycling and the need for recycling, but there is also going to be the continuing need for primary aluminium.”

“We need to see mining as part of the energy transition and the circular economy,” Tony Knight, chief government geologist for Queensland, said.

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