For metals there is no beginning or end, just a continuum of use, re-use and recycling for new uses. At least this is the way that Bob Sippel sees it.
Sippel is well suited to be Noranda’s senior vice-president – recycling: he is passionate about the benefits of using metals rather than other materials that can only be “down-cycled”, such as plastics. “Many metals have enough dollar value that they are a natural for recycling, a real plus,” he notes.
Noranda was one of the first Canadian mining and metallurgical companies to be heavily involved in the metals recycling business (see “Mining the Wreckage of the Computer Age,” CMJ, April 1999, pp.11-13). It became interested in recycling precious metals in the late 1970s when there was plenty of scrap available from the burgeoning electronics business. At the same time, the company was looking for new feed sources for the Horne smelter.
There was the 1984 acquisition of Micro Metallics in San Jose, Calif., which acts as a gatherer of electronic scrap in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. Three years later the company opened a facility called Noranda Sampling in East Providence, R.I., as a collection point and sampling station for electronic materials from the U.S. east coast.
The main metals that are recycled at the Horne are copper, gold, silver, platinum and palladium. The Brunswick smelter recycles lead products and has a small plant that can process 18,000 tonnes of lead acid batteries per year. Smaller amounts of steel and aluminum are captured and sold at Micro Metallics’ Roseville facility, which processes obsolete electronic hardware. At Roseville, “we strive for complete reuse and recycling,” says Sippel, “right down to the cardboard and plastics.”
He goes on: “People don’t appreciate the number of years, the investments and the work that we have done to get this far in a very competitive business. To get to our size and scale it would take a minimum $40 million investment in infrastructure. This is in addition to the hundreds of millions spent on infrastructure for smelting and refining primary materials. This is a very service-oriented business, collecting small lots, accurately sampling them, placing commercial people in the U.S. and Europe-the costs add up.” The recycling group currently deals with 300-400 companies and dealers in 18 countries.
The Horne smelter has been essentially rebuilt so it can handle the complex and variable feeds that form its recycled scrap, as well as concentrate from mines. “The one real advantage that Horne gives us,” says Sippel, “is that the main smelting vessel uses continuous smelting technology [developed at Noranda’s Technology Centre]. This provides a lot of flexibility in feed types and physical form. Another unique advantage is our ability to process plastics and ensure their complete destruction without generating organics such as dioxins or furans in the off-gasses, because of the temperature and other conditions [in the smelting vessel].
“There are only a small number of smelters in the world that can deal with large tonnages of this complex material efficiently. We think we’re the largest in the world doing this in terms of the tonnage that we process. No figures are published, but we process well over 40,000 tonnes of electronic waste and scrap per year.” Recycled material forms about 15% of the feed for the Horne smelter, and it is particularly profitable because of its high precious metal content. The value of the metals recovered from recycled material now exceeds $300 million each year.
The years of working with customers has paid off in a number of large ongoing contracts, such as with Eastman Kodak. “We supply them refined silver from CCR, and we recycle material from their waste streams,” says Sippel. “In the last four years we have formed a strategic alliance with Hewlett-Packard Co. at Roseville. We are working closely with HP to develop a service to deal with obsolete electronic products such as printers.” This plant processes about 1,400 tonnes of HP hardware per month, plus scrap from other manufacturers.
Noranda has developed news ways to sample material and price it accurately at a manageable cost. “Our methods are proven and transparent,” says Sippel. “I am proud of what we’ve created in terms of size, our relationships with companies in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and our reputation in the marketplace. Considering that the Horne smelter was where Noranda started 70 years ago, it has a bright future.”
Trends in Recycled Metals
Why would electronic manufacturers want to be involved with recycling?
“Last year there were 40 million personal computers sold in the U.S. alone,” says Sippel. “Today, in the U.S., only a small percentage of this material is being recycled. In Europe, there is draft legislation before the European Commission requiring companies to recycle their obsolete electronic scrap. Noranda is working closely with other companies that can collect and shred such material in Europe. We are then buying the copper and other precious metals for recovery at the Horne.
“There is a trend to pay for appliances and electronic scrap to be recycled, either because laws are being introduced to force this, or because electronics-makers are being proactive. We’re preparing for more of this business.”
While the volume of obsolete electronic scrap is on the rise, its value is not. The more modern electronics contain less precious metal value than ‘traditional’ electronic scrap. “The amount of metal in a PC today doesn’t pay for its recycling,” says Sippel, “so we are trying to find ways to reduce costs and to maximize the value of recovered parts and materials, including the plastic.”
A fly in the ointment for the metal recycling business in Canada is the federal legislation that does not distinguish between waste going to landfill sites and waste going to recycling facilities. Based on the United Nations’ Basel Convention (1989), this legislation controls trans-boundary movements of waste, and requires the importer to get approval to import all waste material, even if it is to be recycled. Such approvals can be time-consuming and place Canadian metal recyclers, like Noranda, at a competitive disadvantage to those in countries that structure their regulations to promote recycling.
“The industry needs to continue to promote the safe use of metals, and to manage the metals throughout their life cycle,” says Sippel. “The best example I can think of is that some electronics companies are now starting to use magnesium rather than plastic in the casings for laptop computers and televisions, simply because of magnesium’s recyclability. I want to believe there are lots more opportunities like that. That’s where we’re putting our energies.”
Recycling Division U.S. operations as of year-end 1999
|Micro Metallics Corp.||San Jose, Calif.||34||receives, samples and||prepares electronic scrap|
|Roseville, Calif.||236||asset recovery service for||obsolete electronics|
|Noranda Sampling, Inc.||East Providence, R.I.||27||receives, samples and||prepares electronic scrap|