Technology and Business-Model Innovation at the Heart of the Circular Economy6 October, 2016 / Articles
Metals have facilitated humankind’s development – from the Iron Age through to today’s hi-tech world enabled by precious and specialty metals and materials such as platinum, cobalt or germanium. As the world’s population continues to grow and the lifestyle expectations of billions of people in emerging economies increase, the availability of these essential metals is coming under greater pressure.
The solution lies at different stages of the value chain. As metallic ore bodies are becoming more difficult to reach and contain many different elements, more sophisticated recovery technologies are needed to extract the different metals. Once metals reach the processing stage, industries need to maximize the use of the valuable resources in their production process through closed-loop relationships with recyclers. Once products reach the end of their useful lives, the metals they contain then need to be recovered and recycled in a safe and environmentally sound manner.
Umicore is a leader in all three of these areas. The company’s recycling and refining process in Hoboken, Belgium, is unique. It is able to handle over 200 different waste streams – from complex mining residues to end-of-life materials such as electronic scrap and spent automotive catalysts. The plant can recover 17 different metals and return them back to the economic cycle. The operations also have a pilot battery recycling activity using Umicore’s proprietary recycling technology. This enables the recovery of metals and rare earth elements from spent rechargeable batteries.
In addition, Umicore also deploys a closed-loop recycling offering in many of its business units. These recycling activities take back production scrap and residue from customers and recover the valuable metals, thereby reducing or eliminating waste. These operations recover metals such as gold (from the jewellery industry), cobalt (from the tooling industry) rhenium and tungsten (from the aerospace industry), indium (from the coating industry) and germanium (from the fibre optic industry).
Closed-loop business models and leading-edge recycling technology such as Umicore’s are the forefront of the nascent circular economy. However, many other factors will influence its broader adoption and growth; a circular economy can only be as strong as its weakest link.
Environmental legislation is a case in point. In some regions of the world, such regulation has been moving in the right direction. Laws preventing landfilling of certain materials and enforcing the recycling of electronic waste, vehicles and batteries, for example, have been supporting the development of a circular economy for metals. Much more needs to be done to harmonize such initiatives on a global scale, thereby creating a level playing field and avoiding the ‘leakage’ of waste to other regions where it is treated in a way that harms the environment and human health.
The case of Umicore shows that metals can be a major contributor to a circular economy that combines economic growth and development with resource efficiency and a reduced environmental impact.