The importance of resource security has been profoundly underlined by an international row currently simmering between the US and China about the export of rare earth metals.
In a formal complaint to the World Trade Organisation, the US, European Union and Japan accused the Beijing authorities of trying to hold down prices for its domestic manufacturers. Beijing insisted the export restrictions were not protectionist and were necessary for environmental reasons.
Some argue that the UK has been lagging behind in preparing for the looming resource crunch set to engulf markets across the planet as a result of rising costs of essential raw materials and minerals, constraints on their availability and price volatility.
So ministers’ Resource Security Action Plan arrived with some fanfare last week with a document outlining the substantial opportunity on offer to help the UK avoid this crunch, and a skeleton plan on how ministers plan to help UK firms take advantage of it (see box).
Industry experts hailed the plan as a “good first step” but warned that many challenges lay ahead in achieving its aims, and urged ministers not to maintain too narrow a focus.
- Proposals to map out where and how precious metals come in and out of the UK in electrical and electronic equipment to “unlock the hidden value in our gadgets”.
- An industry-led consortium to spearhead business efforts to build up a comprehensive picture of the risks and growth opportunities that UK business can take advantage of in a global market.
- A £200,000 challenge fund for local businesses to come up with new ways of reusing or recycling precious materials.
- Looking at the best way to make sure producers of electrical goods can stop the precious metals they use from going to waste.
- Development of a website to provide businesses with information on the current and future availability of precious resources that they need and to help them identify risks, opportunities and plan for any potential supply problems.
- Between now and 2020, the UK will dispose of 12 million tonnes of electronic equipment – a quarter of which will be IT equipment, consumer electronics and display devices which contain around 63 tonnes of palladium and 17 tonnes of iridium. At current market prices, this amount of palladium would be worth £1bn and the iridium about £380m.
- WRAP and the Environment Agency’s European Pathways to Zero Waste report assessed potential global recovery opportunities of the EU’s 14 most critical metals and minerals at around $15bn.
The spotlight falls on the waste electronic and electrical equipment (WEEE) sector in the first instance, with ministers pledging a short-term focus on metals and minerals.
WEEE recycler EnvironCom called for tighter legislation surrounding the collection and recycling of WEEE. Chief executive Sean Feeney said this would drive up quality, create thousands of jobs and maximise recycling and reuse.
Nigel Harvey, chief executive of Recolight and chairman of the WEEE Schemes’ Forum, told MRW that recovery of materials was important as well as protecting supply, and that recording of data was crucial.
“By having higher targets, as set out in the recast WEEE Directive, we have to make sure as much WEEE that gets collected is recorded as well. Without that recording process, it is unlikely we will meet the targets set in the directive,” he said.
The proposed development of a materials flow analysis of precious metals coming in and out of the UK set out in the action plan was cited by several experts as a primary challenge for policymakers.
“The mapping is crucial,” Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson told MRW. “Without the body of intelligence which it will generate, you cannot go on the next stage: intervention.”
While the mapping of precious metals is crucial, ministers have been warned not to neglect other material types.
Former Veolia deputy chief executive Paul Levitt said: “Taking a longer term view, resource scarcity could apply to many materials which we take for granted, such as recycled plastics.”
He added that many companies wanted to use recycled content in products and packaging, but supply could soon become insufficient to meet anticipated growing needs because so much recycled material was exported.