Ask the average punter about recycling and he or she will mostly likely mention something about being ‘green’. But for those in the know, there is a clear economic case to supply manufacturers with secondary raw materials rather than having to plunder for new ones.
The trouble is that, with the exception of some metals, the contribution of recycling to meeting the demand for materials is “relatively low”, according to the European Commission. Its circular economy (CE) package is supposed to be tackling the problem. But the chances that the EU will implement strong policies to boost recycled content in new products currently look slim.
Could one answer lie in the dry and dusty world of databases? The Commission is backing a number of EU-wide efforts to track the flow of recycled materials that could reap profound benefits for UK recyclers. Two key projects – the Raw Materials Scoreboard (RMS – see box) and Prospecting Secondary Materials in the Urban Mine (ProSUM) – are promising to make it easier for manufacturers to access a constant supply of recycled materials.
ProSUM is supported by the EU Horizon 2020 fund, and is the first attempt to set up a centralised database on arisings, stocks, flows and treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), batteries and mining wastes. Once up and running, this database will be used to improve the management of recycled materials, and the data open to all.
The initiative is being led by the WEEE Forum, an association of EU compliance schemes, of which the UK’s Repic is a member. Repic environmental affairs manager Sarah Downes is ProSUM’s project leader.
“We hope that, by improving the knowledge base and having better information about arisings and composition of the arisings, that it will enable better decisions to be taken about what can be recycled across the EU,” she says. “If industry uses the data to expand recovery operations or to collect more secondary raw materials from the urban mine, then that would be a big success.”
Downes led on a proposal to set up ProSUM in 2015 and funding was secured in January 2016. The project now has 17 partners and with 30-odd linked third parties. Most organisations have between two and five individuals working on the project, meaning that there are plenty of people who have expertise in data platforms, waste composition and statistics-sharing.
Separate groups are looking at different waste streams to identify the available data, but there are no requirements on governments or businesses to provide new information. The hard part is then to standardise the data in order to put it on a single platform.
There are already some reports on materials, such as the WEEE Directive returns that are stored in Eurostat, but Downes says these have “nowhere near” the level of detail being collected by ProSUM.
In October last year ProSUM held its second annual conference. “One of the headaches at the moment is that all this data is being collected for very different purposes. We have to do a lot of work to get it into a standardised format,” says Downes.
“We took the decision to set up a network to try to engage with our stakeholders on a one-to-one basis to understand their requirements. In gathering the data and presenting it to them, we want to make sure it’s fit for purpose. We had more than 70 attendees in total from a range of sectors – industry, manufacturers, some of the smelting industries. We were also able to show some of our early results.
“The consortium includes geological surveys, which are developing an equivalent platform for raw materials. Both platforms will be linked, so it will be possible to compare primary information with secondary.”
Geological surveys are produced every year to report on reserves and, once launched, ProSUM’s portal will have a similar look.
“We want users to be able to do searches, to produce maps, specific reports and generate statistics. Information will be freely available because the project is EU-funded, but there are some limitations: certain organisations have given us data on the basis that we aggregate it in such a way that it does not disclose any commercial sensitivities.”
But it has not all been plain sailing. The ProSUM conference highlighted gaps in knowledge about automobile and component manufacturers.
“We don’t have many stakeholders in our information network representing those sectors,” comments Downes. “We would like to get more automotive guys involved but also, in respect of the component manufacturers, they are the guys that will use most of the critical raw materials. They will have good data and understanding of what’s in their components and the limitations in using recycled materials in those components.”
Working with multinationals is key for Downes and there has been some headway. Electronics manufacturer Philips gave a presentation at the conference. Importers from China and the Far East are also high on the agenda and will be targeted through producer associations.
Downes adds: “I am very optimistic. We are on schedule to achieve our objectives and will have a platform to test in the summer. We’re going to be developing a business plan this month to determine the options to keep it up-to-date in the longer term.
“One of the ideas we are throwing around is whether some payable services could be developed on top. But this is very early days.”
ProSUM is closely linked with the RMS which, in turn, is part of the Raw Materials Initiative launched in 2008 by the European Innovation Partnership (EIP). The idea is that projects such as ProSUM will eventually feed into an EU-wide raw materials information system to help companies secure future investments in the CE.
The scoreboard, which is published every two years, includes information on “recycling’s contribution to meeting materials demand”, WEEE management and trade in secondary raw materials. It concludes that an increasing amount of waste material is leaving the EU, including critical materials such as rare earth metals used in mobile phones and other electronics. Better information should allow companies to develop business plans to prevent this leakage – at least, that’s the idea.
Simone Aplin, principal consultant at Ricardo Energy & Environment, is something of an expert when it comes to waste data. She wrote a report for the RWM Ambassadors last year to identify gaps in knowledge on UK waste flows and how we should plug them.
She is a fan of the RMS and ProSUM, but iskeenly aware of the difficulties in gathering up-to-date information and wants to see more action from governments. Businesses need good data if they are to investment in treatment facilities, she says.
“At present, the most comprehensive and reliable data comes from compulsory reporting driven by regulations such as those on permitting, hazardous waste and producer responsibility. There is very little data on any aspects of waste management or secondary materials where there is no duty to report it. This leads to significant gaps, perhaps the biggest being ‘how much waste do we produce and what is it?’ ”
Aplin thinks that, in the case of the UK Government, its desire to reduce red tape on businesses has led it to rely on voluntary waste management reporting. But any attempt to collect comprehensive data voluntarily “seems unlikely to be successful”, she says.
“Businesses that are considering investing in facilities to treat waste and dismantle items for reuse and recycling need to understand in detail what feedstock is likely to available in an area and what its composition is. In many cases, a European Waste Catalogue code is too broad a description. For example, mattresses, mobile phones and other products are ‘lumped in’ with other waste types, making it difficult to identify how much may be available.
“Having more access to sales data from manufacturers may be more useful in these cases; looking at what has been placed on the market and its lifespan would help companies involved in the recovery and dismantling of these items to plan for the facilities they need.”
Work on the 2018 RMS has already started, with the ambition to deepen the analysis. The EIP on Raw Materials will also be renewing its membership this year, and is looking for a “balanced group of stakeholders”, including from industry.
Raw materials scoreboard 2016
% recycled materials in new products
30%: Cobalt, pulpwood, tungsten
20-30%: Antimony, chromium, gold, iron, nickel, silver
10-20%: Aluminium, copper, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphate rock, platinum, tin
1-10%: Aggregates, borate, germanium, magnesite, natural graphite, neodymium, palladium, thenium, rhodium, sawn softwood, selenium, titanium, zinc
<1%: Beryllium, dysprosium, erbium, gallium, indium, lithium, natural rubber, niobium, silicon
ProSUM is looking for organisations to be involved in testing its platform. Visit: www.prosumproject.eu