Urban mining: In search of Europe’s valuable waste

Kaunas, Lithuania. Waste management factory , January 2016. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Metals in the circular economy.

Each year Europe wastes millions of tonnes of valuable metals by landfilling or exporting them. How can policy measures increase the recovery of these materials?

Most people know that raw materials like metals are valuable. This is why construction sites have heavy security – in order to keep people breaking in and stealing new or used metal.

The problem for Europe is that even though these used materials have extraordinary value, they are still being wasted or exported.

In 2014, Europe exported almost 2 million tonnes of scrap metal including aluminium and copper, as well as 1.3 million tonnes of electronic waste, according to industry association Eurometeaux. The problem is actually getting worse – export levels have steadily increased for over a decade.

The European Commission has targeted an increase in the recovery of these used materials, so-called “urban mining”, as part of its Circular Economy Strategy put forward in 2015. The topic has been discussed this week at the EU’s Raw Material Week, organised by the Commission in Brussels.

“For metals, recycling has always been important and the use of scrap steel, aluminium or copper not only reduces the need for primary raw materials, it is also saves energy and reduces emissions,” says Peter Handley, head of the raw materials unit at the Commission.

“Given the amount of raw materials that Europe imports, it makes economic sense to use urban mining to keep resources in the European economy once buildings or products come to the end of their operational life.”

In order to increase urban mining, Europe needs to first understand what’s out there. In January, the Urban Mine Platform was launched. It is part of the ProSUM project, which is building a centralised database of information on arisings, stocks, flows and treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), batteries and mining wastes.

This will give policymakers access to primary and secondary raw materials data, easily accessible in one platform.

The EU is also implementing legislation to increase the rate of urban mining. This year the EU adopted new waste legislation with increased recycling targets for municipal waste overall, and specific targets for packaging waste – 80% for ferrous metals and 60% for aluminium. The hope is that the targets will encourage better product design and setting standards that encourage circularity, extended producer responsibility, improving collection rates and changing consumer behaviour.

“Landfill mining is another area to look at – with today’s technologies we may be able to find treasures in what we discarded as waste years ago,” Handley says.

Half of Europe not on track with waste recycling

Fourteen EU member states have to step up efforts to reach the target of recycling 50% of municipal waste in 2020 – an objective set by the framework directive in 2008. EURACTIV France’s media partner, the Journal de l’environnement, reports.

Complexity problem

Base metals used in simple applications actually have fairly high levels of reuse in Europe – 90% from automotive, 90% from buildings and 60% from buildings.

“Recycling already makes up a major part of European production,” says Guy Thiran, director-general of Eurometeaux. “Over 50% of Europe’s copper and aluminium is supplied from recycling, and over 60% of lead.”

However recycling rates drop immensely once the products start getting complex, such as in appliances and electronics. “For every one tonne of electronics waste Europe recycled through the proper channels, two tonnes is a lost opportunity – either getting discarded, scavenged, exported, or recycled improperly,” says Thiran. “That’s a huge loss when you consider that Europe’s metals recyclers are equipped to recover over 20 metals including copper, gold and platinum.”

It’s a problem that’s been particularly frustrating for Europe’s appliance industry. The systems are not in place to make it easier for consumers to properly discard of their products.

“Large appliances are not easy to move on your own,” says Paolo Falcioni, secretary-general of European appliance industry association APPLiA. “The market is a replacement market. You go for a new washing machine when the one you have is not working any longer.”

Because of the lack of robust collection systems, much of the reuse is currently involved in the black market. “Waste is a resource, and that is the reason why two-thirds of appliances disappear,” he says.

“Because the most valuable appliances, the ones containing more metal, like ovens, they barely come back to manufacturers under this compliance system. Because the value can be captured easily by anybody. So the value creates a distortion in the takeback systems, whereby the cost of processing appliances outweighs the value.”

Falcioni says that European waste legislation so far has been successful in improving the situation. But new legislation is needed to understand what’s happening to the two-thirds of untraced appliances. “We need authorities to help us to understand where the heck they go.”

Raw power

Vanadium, borate, bismuth, gallium – they may sound like planets from a science fiction movie, but in fact they are some of the most critical elements of the European Union’s economy.  

Conflicting legislation

Some in the metals sector have complained that rather than addressing the problem, some EU legislation is actually exasperating it by making it more difficult to reuse materials due to environmental restrictions.

“Some of the EU’s legal framework is contradictory to the circular economy,” says Bernard Respaut, chief executive of the European Copper Institute. “For example, listing lead as a candidate metal for authorisation under REACH,” the EU’s chemical authorisation and registration scheme.

“That means that the recycled flows will no longer be authorised to be recycled and reused. That means landfill or going out to less constraining countries in terms of environmental law. We are not convinced that the lead containing the alloys of copper products generate an exposure scenario that would justify these alloys to no longer be used.”

Respaut says a better approach would be to take the usage into account, speaking of risk management instead of hazard management. “The latter is to say that pure lead can be dangerous for health. But if lead is alloyed with copper or glass, and that amount of lead and the way the product is used is such that there is no actual risk, then why forgo the possibility?”

Some elements of the EU’s electric and eletronic waste legislation, called WEEE, also need to be reformed in order to increase reuse, he says. Metals have an innate value and that should be driving a market for legal urban mining. But the lack of harmonised product design rules at EU level is holding back that market. This would be particularly helpful for copper, he says, because it has such a long lifespan.

“One of the hurdles is that the design of the product makes it uneconomical to recycle. We should have product design with recycling already as one of the parameters.”

“The value of copper is linked to the price, and that price is set on the market via the metal exchange. There’s little you can do to increase the value. It’s more about facilitating the recovery. That recovery takes time, because copper has a long shelf life. It’s not like a glass bottle where after 7 rotations it gets recycled. A copper cable can go for tens of years, which explains why we will never get to 100% recycling rate.”

The attendees at Raw Materials Week have chewed over these issues all week. As the importance of securing Europe’s access to raw materials is more and more recognised, policymakers are grappling with how to keep this value in the EU.

It will be for the next Commission, taking office next year, to figure out how to deliver on this aspect of the circular economy strategy.

Only one third of EU's e-waste recycled properly

More than two thirds of metal appliances and tech products that are thrown away in the EU are processed illegally and some leak toxins into the environment that can have dangerous health effects. Researchers said Europe has an electronic waste problem.

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