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Metals recovery untarnished by time

Betts has diversified and prospered since its inception in 1760 to recover precious metals from jewellers. Stephen Betts Group managing director Charles Betts and Betts Envirometal general manager Simon Hundal explain how

Targets and quotas may be modern inventions, but recycling itself is nothing new. As far back as the 11th century, Japan had discovered the means to recycle paper, and by the 18th century recycling was a key tool in the American War of Independence, with everything from iron kettles and pots to frigate chains melted down to bolster the war effort.

In 1760, at the dawn of the industrial revolution, and with King George III newly ascended to the throne, Alexander Betts moved from Battle in Sussex to Birmingham, where he set up a smelting and refining business recovering gold and silver ores and precious metals from wastes produced in Birmingham’s newly established Jewellery Quarter.

More than 250 years later, the family-run company has gone from strength to strength. It now specialises in the recovery of precious metals from a staggering range of processes and industries, including the jewellery, ceramic, photographic, industrial and dental professions. The Betts Metal Sales trade counter stocks jewellery findings and bullion for manufacturing jewellers, while Stephen Betts & Sons offers refining and investment services for precious metal market participants throughout Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe.

In 1997, in response to customer demands for integrated waste management solutions and a recognition of the ever-increasing restrictions being imposed on waste movements, Betts Envirometal was established.

As experts in precious metals, we like to think that our vision goes beyond the standard recycling practice of finding solutions for the ‘problem’ of waste; even though we work within genuine markets and although our factory equipment makes it possible to smelt and refine lower grade wastes containing precious metals, we have never had to create markets for the outputs – the metals recovered are highly valuable, sought after raw materials.

In order to source material, we employ representatives who visit jewellers and other businesses across the UK and Ireland. High grade, precious metal-bearing wastes from jewellers tend to be posted or brought to our trade counters in the form of small lemels – the shavings of precious metal left from filing and sawing. But for larger wastes – used x-ray film, or factory clear-outs for example – our logistics team book in collections of waste using our fleet of vehicles.

The sources from which we recover precious metals are very diverse. Hand wash tanks, sweeps and filters from jewellers’ workshops, used x-ray film, silver sludges and sands, circuit boards, and rags and transfers from the pottery industry are just a few examples.

Obviously, the amount of metal recovered varies enormously from source to source. We use state of the art equipment to ensure that all precious metal content is recovered, and also test inputs and outputs to make sure that this is the case. We will have a rough idea of the quantity of material available from different wastes, but surprises are still possible – no one could have guessed that the old carpet pulled out of a jewellery workshop, for example, would yield up 500g of gold, worth £14,000!

How the precious metals are recovered also varies. We have standard practices for different wastes, but regularly work with customers to develop processes where none readily exists. Where possible, if the waste is in the form of a film, on a substrate, or on a circuit board, the metal is chemically removed and dissolved. It is then removed from the solution or electroplated onto a cathode before being smelted.

High grade, precious metal-bearing wastes such as clean scrap from jewellers, lemels or dental wastes can be smelted with various catalysts in small induction furnaces at our Birmingham headquarters or larger industrial furnaces at our factory in Kidderminster. While lower grade wastes such as carpets, ores, paper transfers or sludges may need further treatment to dry and concentrate them before they can be smelted and refined.

Once the precious metals have been recovered and refined, we have various established routes to bring them back to market. Some are simply sold in their raw form, or we can utilise them to add value by creating products to sell back into the various markets in which we operate. These include dental alloys, grain, sheet, wire, wedding rings and investment bars.

Like any business, we are always looking to diversify in order to thrive, but in our case we have a long history of adapting to changing markets. We tend to be viewed as a fairly new player in the sectors outside the jewellery industry, but in fact there has been a history of diversification beyond the jewellery sector almost since the very start of the business in 1760. There are records of consignments of ores and concentrates being shipped from Australia to Birmingham for smelting in the 19th century, and the family was also involved in expanding the geographical knowledge that led to the initial gold discoveries in Australia in 1851.

The business has been recovering silver from film, including medical x-ray film, since 1896. By the 1960s, the business had major contracts for both Kodak and Agfa, and burning film was a more significant element of the business than recovering precious metals from the jewellery industry in volume, if not value terms. With increasing environmental awareness and legislation – and eventually with the advent of digital photography – this market, however, underwent major changes. In the early 1990s, we introduced chemical washing lines and ceased burning film completely.

Manufacturing jewellery in the UK has declined considerably over the last two decades and the advent of Betts Envirometal, focusing on waste management solutions, has helped us to maintain a strong presence. Rather than simply a business to recycle film in an environmentally friendly manner, it reflects our awareness that several industries produce controlled waste containing precious metals, which we have the expertise to recycle in an efficient and compliant manner.

The Betts Group has continued to expand and has developed a range of businesses which work collaboratively to provide a full service. For example, we offer storage facilities for customers who have used x-ray film which is not yet cleared for destruction, and we are also able to process wastes which do not bear precious metals, so that customers can take advantage of a one-stop-shop.

We have moved into the manufacture of dental alloys for crown and bridge restorations and, through our contacts from refining precious metals around the world, have been able to create interesting opportunities. The best example of this was in Liberia, where the family set up a gold exploration company called Hummingbird Resources in 2005. To date, the company has discovered over 3.8 million ounces of gold, with a total valuation of over £3 billion at current prices.

As the focus of recycling industry professionals turns from the implementation of materials collection systems to the creation of genuine market opportunities, the Betts’ model demonstrates that, like recycling itself, the circular economy is not just the latest buzz-word. Processing within the UK is the best guarantee that valuable materials will remain onshore for use in future manufacturing projects or investment, and history proves that recycling and good business sense can successfully work hand in hand.

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