Time for Canada to get Serious on Metals Recycling – by Paul Stothart

Paul Stothart is vice-president, economic affairs of the Mining Association of Canada. He is responsible for advancing the industry’s interests regarding federal tax, trade, investment, transport and energy issues. This article was published in November, 2010.

As a consequence of its fundamental role (such as turning rock into 99.99% pure metal), the Canadian and global mining industry faces a range of environmental challenges relating to water use, tailings management, air emissions and energy efficiency, among others. And, as a consequence of its global presence and importance in developing countries, the sector faces a range of social issues – Aboriginal relations, community engagement, social and health investments, and others. 

On these two inter-related themes, there is no shortage of demands placed upon the mining industry. In assuming its responsibilities, the industry invests heavily in schools, roads, hospitals, clinics and nutrition programs, among other initiatives, and adheres to numerous standards and protocols in addition to host government laws and regulations. One MAC member company has reported fully 15 codes and protocols that guide its global practice in the area of corporate social responsibility. These actions and investments are for the betterment of Canadian and global society, just as the products themselves, as built from minerals and metals, contribute to an improved quality of life. 

However, one socio-environmental area that does not receive sufficient attention in Canada, and where Canada arguably lags Europe, China and other regions, relates to the recycling of metals. While the Canadian mining industry is well prepared to re-process recycled metals, there is a need for other segments of Canadian society to step forward in this area – particularly consumer groups, NGOs, and governments – and to push for greater responsibility on the part of all Canadians. 

It is estimated by Environment Canada that electronic-waste volumes are increasing by around 4% annually in Canada. Electronics manufacturers have helped create a culture in western society of “disposable” technology – one that is embraced by Canadians seeking the latest electronic toy. Canada’s telephone and cable giants, focused on selling the latest gizmo and locking in multi-year service contracts around these products, generally view two years as a reasonable technology lifespan for their cell-phones. Laptops, personal computers, iPods, and flat-screens also tend to fall out of favour after 2-3 years and basement cupboards and garages across the nation are consequently filled with this “old” waste technology. 

Beyond the volumes of garbage associated with this wasteful culture, the e-waste issue also raises concerns regarding the release of metals and other potential pollutants once protective casings are broken during disposal. Electronic products, whether cellular phones, laptops or systemized components in automobiles, typically contain a couple dozen different metals ranging from lead and boron to nickel and cadmium. In most Canadian regions, the flow of recycled materials depends upon a responsible consumer having to research what outlets may exist in the region, driving the e-waste to these outlets, and occasionally having to pay a fee on top of the inconvenience. Without a better organized and properly incentivized societal e-waste recycling system in Canada, it is inevitable that greater volumes of these metals will end up in landfills.  This outcome not only damages the environment, it represents a loss of wealth associated with otherwise recoverable minerals – particularly at high metal prices. 

The recycling issue tends to receive greater attention internationally. EU environment ministers, for example, are presently examining a proposal on sustainable materials management which envisions a move from waste policies toward life cycle policies involving the extraction, product design, production, consumption and disposal phases. This ongoing exercise to promote responsible use of materials will likely be considered in the context of a 2011 European Commission decision to adopt a roadmap on resource efficiency. An EU e-waste directive has already required that all e-scrap be recycled. Countries such as China also tend to have an ingrained recycle and reuse culture, reflective of its historic need for raw materials, where scrap metal serves as an important input to the country’s manufacturing processes. 

For its part, the Canadian mining industry is well prepared to support a stronger Canadian societal effort in metals recycling. For example, Teck Resources is using furnace and metallurgical processing capacity in its Trail BC facility to process e-scrap and, in so doing, recover zinc, lead, indium, cadmium and other metals. The waste plastic and wood are used in co-generating energy and steam, while silica and iron waste is re-used in cement production.

Xstrata’s Horne smelter in Rouyn Quebec also uses precious metal bearing recyclable materials as feedstock in producing 99% anode copper. Xstrata recently completed an investment that doubled the Horne smelter’s e-scrap recycling capacity.  (The fact that e-scrap reprocessing, desirable as it is, consumes more per-unit energy is a point that should be considered in any future government greenhouse gas mitigation policies aimed at the smelting and refining segment). 

The future growth of such businesses in Canada will depend on the extent to which manufacturers, retailers and consumers are required by government policy to take responsibility for life-cycle management and stewardship of the products they produce and consume.