The biggest future issue by far, according to Kurth, right, is how to retrieve the rare metals found in electronic devices – particularly mobile phones. “Germany is the leading country in recycling and we have great success in recycling of paper and steel and so on,” says Kurth. “But no country is experienced in the field of rare metals. That is the future of recycling.”
Last year 1bn mobile phones were produced and this is an increasing trend. Next year this figure is likely to hit 1.3bn. Yet less than 1% of these products are recycled. With the supply of rare metals becoming more difficult and scarce, Kurth argues that technologies must be developed that can recycle these products and extract these materials. “It makes no sense to put all these all products in an incinerator,” he says.
In Germany these technologies are being developed and Kurth says it is the universities that are leading the way. And in the nick of time, for Kurth, estimates that we will need to be extracting these rare metals from waste products soon. “During the next five, six, seven years we will need these technologies and we will have to start using them,” says Kurth.
While there are already technologies that can extract rare metals from waste consumer electronic goods, they are currently too expensive. At the moment it is still much cheaper to buy the raw materials from countries such as China. Because the quantities that need to be extracted from each individual product are so small, it’s also likely that waste firms will need to process around a million old phones at a time to make it cost effective.
Another emerging area Kurth highlights is the establishment of recycling centres for solar panels. “Solar is developing very successfully but up until now we have had no recycling facilities for them,” he says. “This is a new field although some of our enterprises have already started to look at possible technical solutions.”
Kurth adds that collection vehicles will have to go electric to help mitigate the effects of climate change. In some places electric vehicles are already in use. But he warns, “We have a long way to go until all collection vehicles have electric engines but within the next ten years I think we will see very positive developments.”
But most interestingly, Kurth points to a possible fundamental shift in the relationship between material recyclers and the manufacturing industry. He argues that what happens to a product once it has reached the end of its useful life will have to be properly considered. “In the future, industry will have to calculate - not what the most beautiful product is - but how that product will be treated at its end-of-life. Industry will have to consider how to construct products to make them easy to retrieve and re-use their raw materials.”
Kurth suggests, for example, that car manufacturers may decide not to sell cars but lease them instead. That way they can ensure that at the end the vehicle’s life it is returned to them so they can – working more closely with the recycling companies – extract and re-use the raw materials. “It’s a really new way of thinking,” he adds.
But the ultimate aim, says Kurth, is a 100% recycling rate for as many materials as possible – especially rare metals – to conserve and ensure supply for the future.