How innovative recycling in metals is contributing to a circular economy

By Stephanie Gangl | January 14, 2020

There are many factors driving this trend, ranging from new socio-political influences and environmental regulations to lower ore grades and higher impurities that result in new waste materials. Developments in automation and process control are also allowing for the development of increasingly complex processing flowsheets.

We're seeing an acceleration of recycling efforts in metals production, which is beginning to have an impact far beyond individual operations.

Many operators understand that recycling can reduce costs and increase revenues. But not many are aware of the sheer number of ways in which different forms of recycling can be incorporated into metals production at every stage of the project life cycle, and the extent to which these innovative recycling practices can contribute significant cross-industry value for a circular economy.

What is a circular economy?

circular economy is an economic system aimed at eliminating waste where resource outputs become inputs for another operation, organization, or industry in a closed-loop system.

It aims to derive the maximum amount of value from our resources while they’re in use, keep them in use for as long as possible, then recover or regenerate materials and products at the end of each resource’s service life.

A circular economy benefits not just individual organizations but everyone in the system. It broadens the scope for more innovative cross-industry recycling and waste reduction initiatives.

How can metals producers capitalize on new forms of recycling that contribute value both internally and to the circular economy?

Recycling in metals that contributes to the circular economy can be done at each stage of the process, from identifying new feed sources and by-product streams from other industries to reprocessing tailings and waste rock to recover valuable materials and better manage waste. Here are three innovative circular economy recycling practices:

1. Recycling spent oil refinery catalysts to recover vanadium

Interlinking material flows from different industries can create new avenues for materials recycling and new sources of cross-industry value.

In North America, spent catalysts from the oil and gas industry are now being processed to recover vanadium, an increasingly valuable metal due to advances in battery storage technology.

2. Using dry slag granulation as a water-saving alternative with secondary use potential

Considering alternatives that have secondary-use potential in other industries can serve as a more globally valuable recycling practice.

One of our client’s smelters in South Africa is using dry slag granulation instead of the traditional water granulation to eliminate water use and increase safety. Granulated slag can then potentially be used in the construction and cement industries as aggregate.

3. Investing in Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems to provide both electricity and steam

Thermal energy recycling can increase the overall efficiency of adjacent power plants.

The replacement of three coal-fired power plants with one gas-fired plant at a U.S. copper smelter, for example, not only generates electricity but captures and uses waste heat, achieving 80%-82% overall thermal efficiency. The company gained additional power while drastically reducing pollutants.

Cross-industry cooperation is paramount to building a sustainable world

These examples show how innovative recycling practices can benefit more than one industry, contributing greater overall value environmentally, socially, and financially, in a circular economic system. Such practices demonstrate how a sustainable world can be achieved without making compromises and sacrifices to the bottom line. In fact, many cross-industry recycling initiatives have opened up new sources of value and even entirely new revenue streams in the metals industry.

Through innovative recycling at every life stage of their projects, our clients have improved their business and increased the social and environmental sustainability of their operations. As the push towards a circular economy continues, it's worth exploring what this means for your business.