Some people will argue that recycling is the answer to a future short fall in critical metals supplies.
Recycling isn’t the answer, but it is an important part of the answer. It helps to relieve pressure on primary supply pathways which will be stretched almost to breaking point by the demands of the green energy transition.
Given the common goals of climate change and waste mitigation, it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure that metals are used sparingly and in a way that maintains their quality so they can be reprocessed and recycled, lessening the need to extract virgin resources.
So, let’s discuss…
The level of recycling undertaken today varies greatly by commodity, the type of material or product it’s fashioned into, and how well optimised the local collection and recycling system is for that particular product.
For example, aluminium beverage cans have a short lifecycle and low value. In Europe, around 76% of cans are recycled (a combination of collection rate and recovery rate). In contrast, cars and buildings have a much longer life and greater value, and recycling of aluminium from the automotive and building sectors stands at around 90%.
Optimising the system for both short and long-life products is important because aluminium recycling requires only 5% of the energy needed to produce the primary metal.
The International Aluminium Institute (IAI) projects that global demand for aluminium will grow by more than 80% by 2050 for use in technologies such as solar cells, wind turbines and lightweight vehicles.
Globally, around 70% of end-of-life aluminium is collected and recycled. The World Economic Forum states that if recycling rates remain the same to 2050, the increase in primary production necessary to meet demand will mean a rise in sectoral carbon emissions of around 45%.
Around 7 million tonnes of aluminium are not recycled each year. With no change in recycling rates, this is projected to reach 17 million tonnes per year by 2050. Recovery of 95% of this material would reduce demand for primary aluminium by 15%, avoiding 250 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.
Recycling practices for bulk metals are relatively well established but, for metals such as lithium and cobalt or rare earth elements (REEs), they’re less advanced. However, with proper recycling pathways in place, emerging waste streams from clean energy technologies like batteries and wind turbines could prove very valuable.
In its report, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, the IEA states that the amount of spent electric vehicle batteries reaching the end of their first life will surge after 2030.
While recycling won’t eliminate the need for continued investment in new supplies, by 2040 recycled quantities of copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt from spent batteries could reduce combined primary supply requirements by around 10%.
There is also supply security to consider; lessening dependence on primary extraction or finding alternative sources, for example, for REEs where China dominates 90% of refining, is a key concern for many governments (see graph below).
Recycling versus demand
I wanted to better understand the intersection between the mining, metals and recycling industries and how together they could accelerate circularity in critical metals.
Dr Christina Meskers, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and Director of the Extraction & Processing Division at The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, offered to answer my questions. Meskers is also former senior manager for open innovation at Umicore and so knows a thing or two about industrial collaboration.
She explained that, for certain metals, while the volume of materials recycled in absolute numbers might increase over the coming decade, the percentage of recycled material in the total supply may decrease thanks to the rapid increase in demand.
High impact minerals like lithium, graphite and cobalt are a case in point. The World Bank expects the production of these minerals to increase by up to 500% by 2050 to meet the growing demand for clean energy technologies.
“When I worked at Umicore, my colleagues looked at the contribution that portable consumer goods batteries could make to the supply of cobalt today, compared to electric vehicle batteries,” Meskers told me. “There are lots of small batteries out there; their sheer number makes them a relevant resource, but they’re very hard to capture (collect) and get into a recycling system.”
The value of raw materials contained in the global e-waste generated in 2019 is thought to be approximately US$57 billion. However, human behaviour is an unpredictable factor in the collection of devices and much depends upon consumer awareness which requires continual effort and education.
The presence of local or regional infrastructure means that recycling also varies significantly in different geographies.
For example, the UN E-Waste Monitor, states that in 2019, 24.9Mt of e-waste was generated in Asia, 11.7% of this or 2.9Mt was properly collected and recycled. Compare that to Europe where recycling infrastructure is significantly more mature. There, 12Mt of e-waste was generated and 42.5% or 5.1Mt was recycled. That’s a big difference.
Another challenge today is that the cost to recycle some products is higher than the revenues they generate. This is where extended producer responsibility (EPR) comes into play.
EPR is a policy approach under which producers are given a significant responsibility – financial and/or physical – for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products. It ensures that products are properly recycled and treated at their end of life and that the appropriate collection and recycling infrastructures are put in place to receive them.
The quality-quantity trade off
The way in which materials are processed and combined into products determines how much work needs to be done to separate them physically and chemically to return them to, or as close to, their original state as possible.
The challenge of the circular economy is that there will always be losses within the system, whether through collection, sorting or recovery – there is no such thing as a perfect loop or a 100% recycling rate for any material and so primary supplies will always be required.
Meskers explained: “As we get closer to a circular economy, it’s important to consider where and how much time, resources, energy and money should be invested. Do we want to improve recycling technology to recover an extra 1 or 2% of a product? Or should the design and material choices of the entire product be re-thought?
“It’s not about chasing incremental percentage increases at all costs in a single step or process; or a target for the sake of just meeting it and ticking the box. It’s about system-thinking, connecting and recognising the complexities and taking a life cycle approach to improve the performance of the entire system so that materials are kept in the loop and their quality is maintained.”
And there are other, less tangible, considerations too. For example, recycling a material might free up some land or reduce environmental pollution. In these cases, the positive impacts are harder to quantify but they are still valuable.
There are a lot of complexities to consider.
Meskers was realistic: “Recycling is not as straight forward as everybody would like it to be,” she said. “The mining and metals industries understand the fundamental limitations of their own processes; they understand thinking in terms of multi materials – the ore, concentrate and mineral concept can be applied to products too – as well as the fundamentals of breakage, physical sorting and separation and chemical processing.
“They also understand the interconnected nature of metals production, e.g. main and by-product elements. In that sense, these companies also understand that there are limitations as to how far you can go with recycling, and also economies of scale. The main difference is that an orebody is in one location while the ‘urban mine’ is spread out across the globe.”
Recycling is not only about quantity, but also quality. Maintaining material quality and performance as close as possible to the original level is a big challenge, because that dictates how it can be re-used.
Depending on the recycling processes used, different tactics might be required to retain or boost material quality. For example, materials like steel and aluminium are usually re-melted during recycling which means that the possibility to remove impurities is limited. The recycled material might need to be mixed (diluted) with virgin metal or an alloy in order to achieve the desired quality for certain applications.
The optimisation of separation, sorting and re-melting to maintain material quality (by reducing contamination, or through smart mixing), i.e., system thinking, is important.
In contrast, copper printed circuit boards (PCBs), for example, are smelted and then refined, which allows the material to be cleaned. The ability of copper to function as a carrier for precious and other metals allows for their separation in the smelter, so there is no need for them to be physically separated before smelting.
Again, it’s important to weigh up the different options and strategies and assess where and how the greatest ‘bang for buck’ can be gained.
For some metals and material combinations, it will be a long time before the technology is available to recycle them at scale. However, in the meantime, there are others that could be feasibly recovered and returned to production today and they shouldn’t be discounted. Every little counts.
Battery metals at the fore
One area where we see the mining, metals and recycling industries coming closer together is in battery metals, although there has been integration in other commodities like platinum for years.
Deloitte points out in the 2022 edition of its Tracking the Trends report that, as value chains reorganise to better support the green energy transition and allow firms take advantage of new business opportunities, it’s likely we’ll see more vertical integration. More partnerships will also emerge between miners, metal producers and recyclers to provide transparency around metal provenance and greater circularity.
For example, Hydro and Northvolt formed a joint venture in 2020 (Hydro Volt AS) to enable recycling of battery materials and aluminium from electric vehicles and, in February 2022, Glencore and Britishvolt agreed to build a lithium-ion battery recycling ecosystem in the UK.
“It comes back to connecting the silos and creating ecosystems,” said Meskers. “Companies are realising that they don’t have all the knowledge in-house to cover the full value chain, so they need to partner up or create joint ventures. We’re going to see a lot more of that. Companies that are very good at collaborating will also be competitively strong because they learn so quickly.”
Mining & recycling: closer than you think
The recycling process can be broadly split into three parts: collection, physical sorting and separation, and final (chemical) material recovery.
Physical sorting techniques and technologies developed in the recycling industry found their way into mining some time ago. For instance, sensor-based ore sorting technologies developed by companies like STEINERT and TOMRA have been used in the preconcentration of material streams to mineral processing plants for well over a decade.
And, in final metal recovery, hydrometallurgical and pyrometallurgical processes developed in primary metal production can feed back into secondary production. For example, flotation – a staple beneficiation process in mining – is being investigated for separating the black mass of batteries into different fractions.
As such, some mining equipment, technology and service providers (METs) straddle both industries. Metso Outotec is one example. The company signed an agreement in December 2021 to divest its metal recycling business (which specialises in physical sorting and separation) but retains its expertise in metallurgy and refining.
Kim Fagerlund, Vice President of Technology and R&D in Metals at Metso Outotec, was able to offer some insights.
“From ore to metal and all the way to the final product includes many different process steps, which all influence up- and downstream processing options and selections,” he explained, supporting Meskers’ earlier comments around material quality. “Sub-optimisation in one area might negatively influence the recycling possibilities of the final product and/or overall lifecycle waste minimisation.
“The nature of the methods used in virgin metal extraction processes and in the recovery of metals from e-waste or batteries are very much alike. However, certain additional treatment measures need to be developed and modernised, including standards.”
Metso Outotec’s Ausmelt process has been successfully applied to secondary copper recycling at a Kosaka Smelting & Refining Co smelter in Japan with a multi-stage bath smelting practice that treats a range of non-sulphide secondary feed materials.
Another secondary copper treatment option is the Metso Outotec Kaldo process which can be used for smelting and converting various secondary raw materials up to 100% of the charge. A Kaldo furnace for electronic scrap has been in use at the Boliden Rönnskär smelter in Sweden (which processes both virgin and secondary materials) since 1980.
The processing of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) can be performed using different process combinations and Metso Outotec gives a good explanation in this article.
“Interest in battery and e-waste recycling has grown considerably in the last couple of years and we have several early-stage projects on-going, and some are already more advanced,” said Fagerlund.
An example is the deal struck in late 2021 with Li-Cycle North America Hub Inc. for the supply of manganese, cobalt, and nickel solvent extraction technology for a battery recycling plant. This is being built in New York, US, and Metso Outotec is supplying three modular VSF X solvent extraction plants, related Dual Media Filters, and basic engineering.
In addition to physical similarities and shared interests, the mining, metals and recycling sectors also share a common mentality: in recycling, a product consists of different materials that need to be separated out, just as in mining and refining, an ore contains different minerals and metals that must be separated.
That way of thinking about connections and breaking them apart is the same in both industries. What is very different is the heterogeneity and diversity in recyclable products which changes over time. This can easily influence the profitability and/or suitability for cost-effective treatment.
Even within product categories, grades can change. For example, the gold content in PCBs has decreased over the years which has meant that, although gold prices have increased, their net value has either held or decreased.
This fast-moving environment requires that recycling businesses have a high level of agility and awareness of what’s going on in adjacent industries; something the mining industry could learn a lot from.
Like Meskers, Fagerlund agreed that system optimisation, including better collection and regulation of the end-product in recycling, will result in an overall more integrated and efficient model for critical metals going forward.
“Once more central collection hubs are established, better and more cost-efficient treatment plants are likely to be developed either close to or in the same facilities of mining companies and METS producers,” he said. “Then synergies can better be utilised, and circularity becomes visible.”
Meskers pointed out that innovation ecosystems and communities, something The Intelligent Miner has recently covered in depth, could play a key role in greater circularity for metals going forward.
“Companies need to be open-minded, to speed up that learning curve and be willing to do testing or piloting, or even just have a chat and ask, ‘have you ever seen a mine?’” she said. “Helping innovators in that way, or even co-investing, might be another way to accelerate recycling.
“Very often, mining and recycling are two communities that don’t cross over. But in connecting them, either through equipment suppliers, dialogue or collaborative research to increase technology transfer, there could be a lot to gain.”