Clean tech depends on recycling performance, says UN

A recent UN Environment Programme release looks to specialty metals recycling as the key to a performance boom in the clean tech sector.  Maybe full cycle manufacturing and refining is the key to getting more performance out of our specialty metals.

According to UNEP, “Moving the global economy towards environmentally-friendly, clean technologies will increasingly hinge on rapid improvements in the recycling rates of so called "high-tech" specialty metals like lithium, neodymium and gallium.

Such metals, needed to make key components for wind turbines and photovoltaics to the battery packs of hybrid cars, fuel cells and energy efficient lighting systems, exist in nature in relatively small supplies or in discreet geographical locations.
Yet despite concern among the clean tech industry over scarcity and high prices, only around one per cent of these crucial high-tech metals are recycled, with the rest discarded and thrown away at the end of a product's life.

Unless future end-of-life recycling rates are dramatically stepped up these critical, specialty and rare earth metals could become "essentially unavailable for use in modern technology", warn experts.

These are among the preliminary findings of a new report entitled Metals Recycling Rates to be issued by the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). “

UNEP  also takes a look at precious metals like Palladium.  Palladium, used in auto-exhaust catalyst, petroleum refining and other industrial catalysts, dentistry and jewelry has recycling rates up to 90% in some industrial applications, approximately 55% in auto catalyst and less than 10% in electronics applications.

What can we learn from Palladium that will help improve performance on recycling rates in specialty metals? First, vertical integration is a plus.  Take petroleum catalyst.  One company (say BASF) will sell the catalyst to the company operating the petroleum refinery (say Exxon), accept spent catalyst back for refining in its own metals refineries  and credit the amount of Palladium recovered from the spent catalyst back to Exxon.  Exxon gets full cycle service, doesn't need to repeatedly sell and repurchase platinum at gyrating market prices.  Recycling is incentivized and made easy.  Not every battery company will want to go into the lithium recovery business, but contractual “partnerships” can be used to achieve some of the same benefits.

Now consider auto catalyst.  Vertical integration still applies, BASF will supply Ford with both catalyst and refining, but recycling rates are only 50-55%.  Why?  Partly because the retail customer enters the picture.  Exxon's catalyst never leaves its refinery, but Ford's catalytic convertors are going out the showroom door with the cars and some never make it back to the refinery, despite extensive collection networks.  Part of the difference is also because loss in service and refining processing losses are generally greater in  auto catalyst than  petroleum catalyst..  So, performance here is not perfect, but 55% is a lot better than we are doing with the specialty metals, and improvement is going to depend on getting more of those used catalytic convertors to the refinery.

In Palladium's electronic applications, the recycling rate drops to 10%, a performance that is  still an order of magnitude better than the specialty metals, but this rate says much about our throwaway approach to cell phones.  Perhaps customers should pay a “recycling” deposit, like bottles, on purchase of a cell phone.

The overall lesson: Get the product manufacturers involved in the metals recovery, with contractual arrangements that mimic Palladium's full cycle product sale/ refining service.  The battery maker who can avoid buying lithium in the open market because it's looking to refining recoveries that are cycled right back into production gets real financial benefits – the kind of benefits that will cause manufacturers to drive some creative, high performance approaches to getting end users committed to recycling.  Side benefit - improved specialty metals and rare earths recycling will reduce sole source reliance on China for many items.

Photo Credit: Abi Skipp's photostream