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Industrial Symbiosis and the valorisation of non-ferrous metals

Unlike most materials, almost all metals can be endlessly recycled without losing or damaging their properties. This characteristic implies that metal by-products are in principle an excellent secondary raw material to be introduced in new production processes. Likewise, increasing non-ferrous metal recycling activities within industrial symbiosis (IS) can bring strong economic and environmental benefits to the green transition of the EU industry.

Non-ferrous metals include base metals, precious metals, specialty metals, and rare earth elements. Like ferrous metals, they are an ideal candidate for a circular economy as they do not lose their intrinsic properties during recycling and can be used and re-used multiple times, maintaining their quality and functionality. As such, they are essential in a variety of vital sectors ranging from buildings, transport, electronics to defence, telecommunications, optical, ceramics and packaging.

Table 1 List of non-ferrous metals

 Base metalsAluminium, Copper, Lead, Nickel, Silicon & ferro-alloys, Tin, Zinc.
Precious metalsGold, Iridium, Osmium, Palladium, Platinum, Rhodium, Rhutenium, Silver.
Specialty metalsAntimony, Berillium, Bismuth, Chromium, Cobalt, Gallum, Germanium, Hafrium, Indium, Lithium, Magnesium, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nobium, Rhenium, Sadmium, Selenium, Tantalum, Tellurium, Titanium, Tungsten, Vanadium.
Rare earth elementsCerium, Dysprosium, Erbium, Europium, Gadolinium, Holmium, Lanthanum, Lutetium, Neodymium, Praseodymium, Promethium, Samarium, Scandium, Terbium, Thulium, Ytterbium, Yttrium.

The non-ferrous metal industry is a backbone of the EU economy. A 2018 study from the Institute for European Studies (IES) indicates that the EU non-ferrous metals industry has a total production of around 47Mt. It has an annual turnover of EUR 120 billion, employing around 500 000 persons directly in more than 900 facilities, with most of the activity located in Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and Poland.

But while the non-ferrous metals constitute an important share of the EU economy, the industry is increasingly pressurised by global competition and trade imbalances. Primary smelting and refining operations account for 6% of the global total, so the EU is mostly dependent on imports of its primary raw materials – only 1% of global mining production of metal ores is in the EU. However, IS and the metals recycling industry can help lift off the pressure that the non-ferrous metal industry faces. Indeed, Europe’s metals recycling industry is a real world-leader with a 24% market share. In addition, it can help delivering on the ambition of the European Green Deal. Non-ferrous metals are used and not replaceable in most of the technological solutions for decarbonization (battery storage and smart grids, fuel cells, wind turbines, and solar panels). As such, the EU green transition can be achieved only if enough non-ferrous metals are available. For instance, in 2017 the World Bank projected that up to 250% more non-ferrous metals will be demanded by the world’s wind turbines by 2050, up to 300% more metals for solar panels, and up to 1200% more metals for batteries.

Examples of IS potential have been addressed by the Horizon 2020 project SCALER that has developed a map identifying and geolocating all installations that could be involved with the 100 most promising synergies across Europe. For instance, aluminium oxide from salt slag process can be used by cement industries (raw material preparation) and glass industries (stone and slag wool manufacturing). In both cases, the product has a high viability distance of 1 326 km that enable a lot of opportunity of exploitations. In the first synergy between the aluminium and cement sector already 116 synergies seem to be viable in the EU for a distance of 500 km. As for the latter synergy between the aluminium and the glass sector, already 125 synergies seem to be viable for the same distance.

A separate study was conducted for IS in copper sector highlighting the potential of iron silicate.

Further facilitating IS and sector coupling for the metals industry can contribute to enable the EU’s non-ferrous metal ecosystem’s transition to climate neutrality. It would also benefit from the following measures, as the IES study shows:

  • extending the strategic approach under the action plan for batteries to other value chains which are critical for Europe’s transition to a climate-neutral economy;
  • optimising the collection and sorting infrastructure for metals scrap and products, to improve recycling rates;
  • avoiding leakage of scrap outside of the EU when there are no sufficient guarantees that metals recovery will happen at the necessary standards;
  • investing into Europe’s capacity for state-of-the-art recovery of metals from existing and emerging stock, including through new technologies;
  • supporting development of climate friendly technologies and techniques that enhance the recovery of metals and alloys from secondary raw material streams;
  • improving product design, through requiring easier and more efficient disassembly, traceability, and recyclability of metals (e.g. for electronics waste).

Such paths would include the development of regional clusters in an ambitious circular economy framework nurturing strategic value chains.

The valorisation of the non-ferrous metals through industrial symbiosis can help the European industry reap the economic, social and environmental benefits of the transition towards climate neutrality. There is a growing number of cases of IS, with a wide diversity in terms of the types of economic activities involved and the types of waste stream, that confirm the interest of the European industry to contribute to the goals of the Circular Economy Action Plan across EU Member States. It is an ongoing process involving production processes and services that can enhance the companies’ competitiveness by exploiting a cross-sectorial cooperative approach, in a context of material scarcity, decarbonisation of industrial processes, and stricter environmental policies.