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Feature: Industrial and consumer products a mine of PGMs

According to a new study published by Gold Field Mineral Services (GFMS), almost half of Germany's annual demand for platinum group metals (PGMs) is satisfied by recycled material. Moreover, products still in use and yet to be manufactured point to a growing resource, and the introduction of environmental legislation should lead to even higher usage of secondary PGMs in the future.

Using data for 2001*, Belgium's speciality materials company Umicore and Germany's environmental research body Öko Institute have compiled a case study of Germany's PGM demand and its current and potential recycling rates.

A typical consumer of PGMs in industrial processes, autocatalysts and glass, Germany's gross demand for PGMs in 2001 is calculated at about 38 tonnes, of which 45% was satisfied by material recovered from industrial and consumer end-of-life products. Auto catalyst production accounted for 40% of gross demand of PGMs, chemical industry catalysts 22%, glass industry products 13%, and jewellery 9%.

The report identifies two distinct forms of recycling structures - closed loop and open loop systems. Generally, the first applies to industry and the second to the consumer sector. But due to the fact that closed loop systems are highly controlled and open loop systems are not, the recovery rates from each are very different.

Industrial processes that use PGM-containing materials in the manufacture of products or intermediate products eventually exhaust an industrial unit, for example, a filter but not the PGMs used in it. They are not only easily available for recycling, but recycling is an economic imperative for the enterprise. The consolidated nature of industry in which the PGM user has close relations with the PGM provider means that material can be returned, refined and supplied again to the user, ensuring the closed loop.

In 2001, recycled industrial catalysts and glass industry products satisfied 85% of PGM demand in those sectors and for more than two-thirds of the total volume of PGMs recycled in Germany.

On the other hand, open loop systems in which end-of-life automobiles and consumer products are recycled are much less predictable. They rely on the general public for return and collection and a fragmented recycling sector for recovery and recycling. PGMs recycled from scrapped auto catalysts satisfied only 12% of gross auto catalyst demand in 2001, according to the study.

This accounts for the fact that, in 2001, 10 tonnes of PGMs in Germany escaped recycling and were considered as lost. The study found that the country's national inventory of PGMs contained in products-in-use is about 240 tonnes, but most is to be found in consumer durable products held by private individuals, such as auto catalysts in cars and the components in electrical and electronic products. The implications for the future are clear: more PGMs could be extracted from the informal consumer sector.

The challenge to raise the recycling rate of open loop systems is being taken up by legislation. EU directives on the recycling of end-of-life vehicles (ELV) and waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) are designed to optimise the collection and recycling of materials from the informal sector by making the original manufacturers (or the importers) responsible for the recovery and recycling of their products.

Both directives are due to come into force in January 2006.

The research partners of the study conclude that even if open loop recycling continues a

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