Press release

Golden business opportunity hidden in consumer goods

Almost a quarter of all used or broken electrical and electronic products taken to household recycling centres could be fixed and resold.

Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of precious metals like gold and platinum are being thrown away in the UK every year when household goods such as old mobile phones and laptops are scrapped. Now the Government is launching a new plan to help UK businesses benefit from the multi-billion global market in extracting and reusing these valuable metals.

Faced with a rising global demand for consumer goods and an increasing reliance on speciality metals from abroad, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman today published the Resource Security Action Plan to make sure UK businesses are more resilient to any changes in supply and price, and can make the most of new opportunities.

China produces over 95 per cent of rare earth elements, with Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo leading production of other key materials that are used in everyday technology such as mobile phones.  Eighty per cent of Chief Executives surveyed by EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said that raw materials shortages were a risk to their business in 2012.

The UK is one of the first countries to bring business and civil society into the heart of plans to make sure UK growth isn’t harmed by potential supply uncertainty, while ensuring new growth opportunities are tapped into.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said:

“Businesses are already feeling the heat from uncertainty in the supply of the speciality metals used in mobile phones, medical equipment and aeroplanes.

“We’re working with business to help prepare for these risks - but there is also a multi-billion pound opportunity in the massive amount of valuable metals lost because of how we deal now with products people no longer want.

“I want to see British businesses taking advantage of this golden opportunity to boost growth and jobs through how we design products, while re-using, recycling or substituting valuable metals.”

Business Secretary Vince Cable said:

“There are a wealth of opportunities that exist for businesses to capitalise from the valuable materials that are thrown away in unwanted electrical equipment each year.

“This plan will help UK businesses to better withstand any changes in both supply and price, make the most of emerging growth opportunities, create high-skilled jobs and compete on the world stage.”

The Action Plan aims to develop better coordination between businesses and industry and to make sure everyone is armed with information about the availability of these resources to make the right choices. Key actions include:

  • Financial support of £200k for local businesses to come up with new ways of re-using or recycling precious materials. Defra will be working with the Technology Strategy Board to help build better partnerships between businesses, local authorities and local communities to provide growth opportunities. For example, better partnerships between manufacturers, waste companies and local authorities could see products redesigned so that recovering valuable minerals is easy and cost-effective.
  • A new industry-led consortium - to spearhead business efforts to build up a comprehensive picture of the risks and growth opportunities that UK business can take advantage of in a global market.
  • Unlock the hidden value in our gadgets - by developing a map of where, and how, the precious metals come in and out of the UK in electrical and electronic equipment.  This will enable business to innovate and create jobs by capturing those materials.  We will also work in Europe to look at the best way to make sure that producers of electrical goods can stop the precious metals they use going to waste. For example, of the £350 million worth of gold that is used in the production of consumer goods each year in the UK, 75 per cent is lost through traditional recycling processes.
  • Development of a website that provides businesses with information on the current and future availability of precious resources that they rely on, to help them identify risks, opportunities and plan for any potential supply problems.

WRAP and the Environment Agency’s European Pathways to Zero Waste report assessed potential global recovery opportunities of the EU’s 14 most critical metals and minerals at around $US15 billion.

The Resource Security Action Plan was developed in consultation with business, waste management companies, manufacturing companies including the Confederation of British Industry, EEF (the manufacturers’ organisation), the Aldersgate Group, the Environmental Industries Commission, IEMA, the Green Alliance, Rolls Royce, General Electric, Veolia and Sita.  Many small businesses from minerals and metals producers and user companies also convened on several occasions to advise Ministers on these issues.

Much of the Technology Strategy Board’s £4.5 million ‘collaborative R&D’ programme on resource efficiency is supporting projects to improve materials security, including substitution, and a significant element of WRAP support from its existing £28.8 million budget is channelled into materials efficiency.

Between now and 2020 - the UK will dispose of 12 million tonnes of electronic equipment - a quarter of which will be IT equipment, consumer electronics and display devices which contain around 63 tonnes of palladium, and 17 tonnes of iridium.  At current market prices, this amount of palladium would be worth £1 billion and the iridium, around £380 million.

Almost a quarter of all used or broken electrical and electronic products taken to household recycling centres could easily be fixed and resold, which represents a gross revenue opportunity of £200 million each year.

Speciality metals used in consumer products include:

  • Mobile phones: gold, antimony, palladium, beryllium, gallium and platinum.  (And cobalt in the battery).
  • Laptops: cobalt and nickel are in the hard storage (ie disk drives) as are neodymium (a rare earth) in the magnets.
  • MP3 in-ear headphones microphones, loudspeakers: neodymium again in the magnets.
  • Rechargeable batteries:  Cobalt is an important component in the three main rechargeable battery technologies in portable electronic devices such as digital cameras, mobile phones, laptops, shavers or power tools.
  • Hybrid electrical vehicles: portable tools, cordless phones and games: use NiMh (Nickel metal hybrid) or Lithium batteries which also contain rare earths. Approximately 8% of the rare earth elements are used as an alloy in rechargeable nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries.
  • TVs, mobile phones, notebooks, computers and other electronic devices: Indium particularly for LCD displays.  These uses consume over 50% of the world virgin output of indium and about 80% of the total availability including reclaimed indium. Cerium lanthanum and praseodymium (rare earths) are used, amongst others, in polishing agents for LCD screens in the making of them.
  • Circuit boards/electronics: cobalt, gallium, lithium, platinum group metals (and fluorspar in production).
  • Jewellery: platinum (either as a component of white gold or as palladium jewellery itself, representing its third most substantial use).
  • Vehicles: platinum, palladium and rhodium in catalytic converters. In 2008 the total production of platinum was estimated to be 178 tonnes. The major applications included autocatalysts (52%) and jewellery (19%).
  • Medicine: platinum is used in chemotherapy treatments.

Notes to Editors:

The Resource Security Action plan can be found at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/publications/2012/03/16/pb13719-resource-security-action-plan/

Supplementary information can be found at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/economy/business-efficiency/resource-security/

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