Euractiv - Each year Europe wastes millions of tonnes of valuable metals by landfilling or exporting them. How can policy measures increase the recovery of these materials?

Most people know that raw materials like metals are valuable. This is why construction sites have heavy security – in order to keep people breaking in and stealing new or used metal.

The problem for Europe is that even though these used materials have extraordinary value, they are still being wasted or exported.

In 2014, Europe exported almost 2 million tonnes of scrap metal including aluminium and copper, as well as 1.3 million tonnes of electronic waste, according to industry association Eurometeaux. The problem is actually getting worse – export levels have steadily increased for over a decade.

The European Commission has targeted an increase in the recovery of these used materials, so-called “urban mining”, as part of its Circular Economy Strategy put forward in 2015. The topic has been discussed this week at the EU’s Raw Material Week, organised by the Commission in Brussels.

“For metals, recycling has always been important and the use of scrap steel, aluminium or copper not only reduces the need for primary raw materials, it is also saves energy and reduces emissions,” says Peter Handley, head of the raw materials unit at the Commission.

“Given the amount of raw materials that Europe imports, it makes economic sense to use urban mining to keep resources in the European economy once buildings or products come to the end of their operational life.”

In order to increase urban mining, Europe needs to first understand what’s out there. In January, the Urban Mine Platform was launched. It is part of the ProSUM project, which is building a centralised database of information on arisings, stocks, flows and treatment of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), end-of-life vehicles (ELVs), batteries and mining wastes.

This will give policymakers access to primary and secondary raw materials data, easily accessible in one platform.

The EU is also implementing legislation to increase the rate of urban mining. This year the EU adopted new waste legislation with increased recycling targets for municipal waste overall, and specific targets for packaging waste – 80% for ferrous metals and 60% for aluminium. The hope is that the targets will encourage better product design and setting standards that encourage circularity, extended producer responsibility, improving collection rates and changing consumer behaviour.

“Landfill mining is another area to look at – with today’s technologies we may be able to find treasures in what we discarded as waste years ago,” Handley says.

Complexity problem

Base metals used in simple applications actually have fairly high levels of reuse in Europe – 90% from automotive, 90% from buildings and 60% from buildings.

“Recycling already makes up a major part of European production,” says Guy Thiran, director-general of Eurometeaux. “Over 50% of Europe’s copper and aluminium is supplied from recycling, and over 60% of lead.”

However recycling rates drop immensely once the products start getting complex, such as in appliances and electronics. “For every one tonne of electronics waste Europe recycled through the proper channels, two tonnes is a lost opportunity – either getting discarded, scavenged, exported, or recycled improperly,” says Thiran. “That’s a huge loss when you consider that Europe’s metals recyclers are equipped to recover over 20 metals including copper, gold and platinum.”