MPs highlight potential in scrap metals

May 25, 2011

Britain is wasting a great opportunity to extract valuable metals from old electrical and electronic goods, by sending scrap overseas instead of recycling it at home, according to a committee of MPs.

The Commons science committee calls on the government to take a lead in developing British resources of strategically important metals, which are vital to advanced manufacturing and low-carbon energy technologies. That could hopefully involve new mining operations in the UK and more recycling which will also mean more jobs.

Although the world is unlikely to run out of such materials (which include the “rare earth” elements as well as the platinum group and other scarce metals) within the next few decades, UK users could face shortages and prohibitively high prices, because some metals have monopoly or oligopoly suppliers.

For example, the MPs point out that China currently supplies 97 per cent of the world’s rare earth elements (vital in electronics) and has recently applied export quotas.

A related threat to price stability, according to the report, is speculation in the metals market based on the “perception of scarcity”. The Office of Fair Trading should look into allegations that large dealers on the London Metals Exchange were acting uncompetitive, the MP’s say, though they did not investigate the workings of the market in any detail.

The report says that although Britain is good at recycling bulk metals such as iron and aluminium, it is less successful at extracting small amounts of rare and precious metals from scrap. Much of the country’s waste electrical and electronic equipment goes to the developing world for disposal. This is a “nonsensical” export trade for two reasons, the report says: the UK misses the opportunity to extract precious metals and offloads an environmental problem on to poor countries.

“There is significant potential for the UK to improve its efficiency of metal use … and materials recovery,” says Andrew Miller, the Labour MP who heads the committee. “It is vital that the government explores these options without delay.”

One route to improving the recycling of small quantities of strategic metals would be for more manufacturers to embrace a “cradle-to-grave” approach, in which products are designed for disassembly at the end of their life. They can then be returned to their original maker for resource recovery, rather than being scrapped.

The report also points out that the UK has unexploited geological deposits of various strategic metals but in many areas it is unclear whether extraction is economically viable. The government needs to assess potentially valuable domestic mineral resources while investing in research to ensure that they could be mined with the least possible environmental impact.

“We are concerned … that uncertainty and delay in the planning process is preventing some mining companies from even considering prospecting for reserves in the UK,” the MPs say. “We recommend that the government classify mines, in particular those containing strategic metal reserves, as nationally significant infrastructure.”