Australia is in the embryonic stages of an industrial recycling culture that can reshape and reinvigorate industries and help sustain our resources, society and the planet. TIM TREADGOLD reports.
Article from resourceful: Issue 8, November 2015.
The idea of recycling is not new, yet we are still far away from the ideal situation in which all the minerals we mine and the materials we produce are recycled and re-used in an endless loop.
Examples of how consumers and industry benefit from recovering and reprocessing resources are easy to find, but stitching them together into a cohesive plan is the challenge, especially for the mining industry which potentially has a leading role to play in this emerging world of industrial ecology.
Whether it's the simple business of households recycling aluminium, paper and glass to save them from being dumped as landfill, to the more sophisticated collection and re-processing of batteries and mobile phones, our industrial ecology culture continues to evolve.
For people who have grown up in the 'throw-away' society this move requires a change of mindset, while industry may need financial and regulatory incentives
to find ways to extract valuable commodities rather than discard products at the end of their lifespan.
"We're making progress in industrial ecology research and its many benefits but we have a long way to go," says Chris Vernon, Research Director of Processing Australian Ores at CSIRO Mineral Resources.
"Some of our research is showing considerable potential in a field which is lot deeper than simply recycling old products.
"It actually starts in the way we design products, such as cars and mobile phones, to make it easier to capture and re-use the valuable materials they contain."
For the mining industry the concept of industrial ecology should not be revolutionary because it has been a leader, perhaps without actually knowing.
Aluminium, a metal sometimes referred to as 'congealed electricity' has been at the forefront of industrial ecology through recycling. At first glance recycling might seem to be acting against the interests of a business engaged in mining and processing bauxite ore because success in recycling implies reduced demand for freshly-made metal.
But what the aluminium industry discovered was that its most valuable input is the energy used to produce metal. Using scrap metal (a low cost source of raw material) helped keep prices down and encouraged consumption, thereby lifting overall demand for aluminium.
A similar situation can also be seen with scrap steel, especially in Europe and North America, where demand for iron ore has been reduced by a widespread and efficient scrap collection and recycling system.
Specialist recycling companies, are sometimes referred to as 'above ground' miners for the way they collect scrap, separate it into different streams and sell it back to industry
These companies focus on the major metals which offer the volume required to build a profitable business. As the volumes of a metal decrease to minute levels, such as rare earths and the indium used on the screens of mobile phones, the economics get harder as the collection cost rises and extraction becomes more complex.
Computers and mobile phones, with their high gold and rare metal content, are one of the more interesting industrial ecology challenges because while there are millions available for recycling, and the total volumes of metals is large, each computer and phone contains only a small amount which is deeply embedded in the device.
Sarah King in CSIRO Manufacturing is a leader in the field of industrial ecology and in novel processing technologies to recover metals and other valuable products from waste such as mobile phones.
"Another CSIRO Land and Water project uses bacteria to treat electronic waste, free up the metals, and provide a clean and green method to recover valuable commodities."
While in its early days there is the potential for electronic waste, such as computer circuit boards and mobile phones, to be crushed and treated with a solution rich in bacteria, in a similar way to a heap-leach gold processing plant, with the metals being recovered from the solution as it flows off the waste.
As a yardstick for miners, a goldmine of reasonable grade assays around 5 grams a tonne. Mobile phones, if you can imagine a tonne of them, assay 160 grams a tonne.