Recycling precious and special metals: a call for coordinated action

Wanted: real progress in recycling efforts, boosting environmental protection and increasing security of supply – from all players

gold bar on a circuit boardClick to enlarge
Electronic components contain many valuable metals which should be recycled.
Source: VRD /

Neodymium, gallium or indium – these and other precious and special metals are the essential components of many products, for example wind farms, photovoltaic modules, e-bikes, smartphones and navigation devices. Global demand for these metals is on the rise, making recycling as a source of raw materials more and more important. Up to now most special metals in used products have either not been recycled at all or only on a very small scale. A workshop initiated by the German Environment Agency (UBA) and attended by participants from science, industry and government discussed the question of how to promote and establish recycling in Germany.

Maria Krautzberger, President of UBA, said: “Future technologies in particular will experience an increase in demand for precious and special metals. These resources are finite and their extraction is often problematic, which is why recycling plays a critical role. New recycling technologies must be supported and implemented at many levels. Market mechanisms alone will not provide enough impetus. Government must also provide incentives, for example through funding programmes and more comprehensive recycling regulations. The German Environment Agency will continue its efforts to improve the recycling of precious and special metals through research and support for investment and networking.”

Environmentally compatible and sustainable recycling of rare metals will only be successful if measures are implemented on several levels at the same time. This was the core message of the workshop held on 2 November 2015 (Title: Rückgewinnung von Edel- und Sondermetallen). 120 researchers and decision-makers from government, industry and society attended the workshop, which delivered valuable information for the further development and implementation of various measures to further advance the recycling of precious and special metals. The information from the workshop will be used to draft a regulation on management of used electrical and electronic equipment. In addition, UBA proposed the introduction of a regulation on precious and special metals which would also apply to other waste streams which are not subject to specific control and thus enable their recycling.

The workshop was opened by Prof. Markus Reuter, Director of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology. He believes the Circular Economy 4.0 is the solution to the current challenges we face as a result of ever more complex products and waste:  “Recycling critical metals into high-quality products demands that we link the existing infrastructure in metallurgy processes with new high-tech processes and combine them in different ways to recycle the greatest amount of metals and energy as possible.”

Take the example of neodymium: magnetic neodymium is in the motors of e-bikes, in wind farms and computer hard disks. Up to now industry in the European Union (EU) has made no investment in neodymium recycling facilities since hardly any magnetic materials are separated from waste. There is also a lack of motivation to separate because the recycling units do not exist. Solutions must be found and applied on both sides in parallel to solve this dilemma. It will require improved networking among industrial players to accumulate the volumes which merit recycling. Political measures must also be implemented: a number of different funding programmes sponsored by the German ministries of research and environment have supported the development of novel recycling processes for a number of years. The collection and separation of e.g. neodymium magnets must be included in recycling regulations to ensure a steady supply to recycling facilities.

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