4 December 2018

Boosting the sustainability for UK metals

Richard Kirkman of Veolia UK & Ireland discusses the role metals play in a diverse range of industries. They are a vital part of the UK economy, they perform crucial enabling roles for many industrial growth sectors and are essential for manufacturing, construction and power generation.

But traditional mining of the ores that produce these metals has a large carbon footprint and an environmental impact on a huge scale – with many mines visible from space. As the environmental impact and cost of virgin extraction become ever greater there is a need to make greater use of recycling.

The growing need to move towards a more circular economy now gives us the opportunity to secure supply chains for an industry worth an estimated £50 billion. Recyclers and metal processors have made big advances in sourcing the materials demanded by industry. But we know we can go further to enhance sustainability, reduce the carbon footprint and secure supply chains.

We are in need of new, innovative ways of prospecting these elements to ensure a continued supply chain for production. Veolia is currently working on a number of projects to recover platinum, palladium and rhodium from different difficult to treat waste streams. The streets might not be paved with gold but there are important materials that can be recovered from them through street cleaning operations.

The ores that produce precious metals used to make everyday technology (metals that we take for granted) – in their natural form are running out, requiring us to look at other solutions. Veolia has been doing just this and we now have the ability to ‘mine’ 100% pure platinum from out of date specialist drugs which contain traces of precious metals.

This process of recycling allows us to lower emissions and save 14 kg of CO2 compared to extracting ore from its virgin state.

Veolia has also been able to harness the metals found in 1.5 million tonnes of discarded electrical goods. Veolia receives around 300,000 obsolete TVs each year and these modern LED televisions contain a cocktail of useful metals.  By separating out the components we can turn ferrous metal into new parts, and circuit boards and cables into new electronics, jewellery, pipes and solar cells.

Other non-ferrous metals produce enough material to make 6.7 million cans a year as well as car parts and bicycles.

Eclipsing this activity are the new opportunities coming from the decommissioning of North Sea oil and gas platforms with an estimated 894,000 tonnes of materials, mainly metals, available between now and 2025. By managing the complex logistics and using specialist port facilities we can complete shore based demolition of these structures and achieve recycling rates of 96-99 percent.

Metals are a good fit for the circular economy model by being endlessly recyclable, but like the plastics market we need to continue to ensure that good product design is in place to allow for simple recovery of precious metals.

There is demand for non-ferrous materials by both the automotive and high tech (mobile phone etc.) industries and a growing appetite for industry to adopt greater recycled content and this is supported by policy makers.  By taking a closer look at how we can capture metals we can harness their value now and into the future.

 By Richard Kirkman, Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, Veolia UK & Ireland

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