What's next for metals recycling?

Written by: Marcus Brew | Published:

The metals market hasn’t had it easy in recent times, but is it possible to be profitable in the face of continually difficult trading conditions? Marcus Brew, managing director of UNTHA UK, talks quality, quantity and sophistication

There can be no disputing the fact that, in recent months, the metals market headlines have often made for tough reading. The UK steel industry is in turmoil, waste crime is prevalent in the sector and commodity prices have been far from buoyant, at a time when other recyclates such as cardboard have been thriving.

In a recent online poll, we asked: ‘Do you think it’s still possible to make money in the metals industry, in the current depressed market?’ The findings were decidedly mixed, reinforcing the air of uncertainty and perhaps frustration in the face of difficult trading conditions; 44% of respondents said that yes, they do still think it’s possible to make money, while the same proportion of participants claimed that it isn’t feasible; 12% didn’t have the answer, choosing to select the ‘not sure’ option.

Innovation drives change

Let’s look beyond the negativity. Metals recycling is a £5.6bn industry in the UK, employing more than 8,000 people. Its processing of ferrous and non-ferrous scrap is crucial to one of the oldest ‘circular’ concepts known to man – the smelting of old metals to produce new. It is a long-standing and important ‘operation’, at the heart of the British economy.

However, it is an industry, like many strands of business, with varying levels of sophistication. Some operators have continued to embrace ever-smarter sorting, grading, separation and size reduction technologies to maximise the effectiveness of their recycling lines.

Others ‘like what they know’ and have been resistant to change. Traditional shear equipment has been utilised to cut metals down, because the perceived high-wear nature of the application would make alternative methodologies too expensive.

In a number of instances there has therefore been no new thinking regarding how to improve upon the basic mechanical breakdown of metals using big, cumbersome pieces of kit.

But margins have been squeezed in this sector for some time, and while the temptation is to sit tight and wait for change, this often perpetuates the problem, especially if conditions don’t pick up. That’s why, approximately two years ago, the changing state of the metals market prompted us to investigate new ways to boost clients’ profitability through engineering innovation.

Our pledge was to find a way to heighten metal recycling efficiencies, sophistication and revenue yield for operators of all sizes.

A focus on metal quality

The focus was metal recyclate quality. Of course, well-segregated, clean metals are much easier to process and sell on. But, if metals are contaminated, or ‘locked’ within other more complex material streams, their value is practically lost.

On a simple level, this describes something as basic as aluminium cans contaminated with organic matter that has been placed inside by a consumer. But it also summarises the challenges associated with handling uPVC windows or end-of-life vehicles, for example – multifaceted products from which it is difficult to extract all metal content.

A similar problem is often experienced in MRFs and alternative fuel production plants too. Overband magnets exist to extract metals from the lines for maximum waste hierarchy compliance.

But up to 50% of the material can be contaminated with substances like plastic film, which renders the metal worthless. In fact, in recent times, operators have had to pay a fee to dispose of the metals, rather than being able to generate any revenue stream whatsoever, from the scrap.

Maximising recovery and revenue

The solution is to shred the contaminated metals with a high-torque, slow-speed and low-wear shredder which liberates the materials and maximises the volume of clean ferrous and non-ferrous scrap that can be truly recovered from the process for resale.

A four-shaft machine with screen is the perfect solution to regulate the particle homogeneity and robustness of the shred, before the material is sent via a discharge conveyor and through two density separators for further segregation. While investment is of course needed in such a process, this new thinking proves that it is still possible to make money in the depressed metals market, and a return on that investment could be achieved in as little as 18 months.

Contamination considerations

It must be noted that the problem of contamination doesn’t solely exist among metals recyclers and operators handling this material stream/arising.

Contamination levels have risen across the board in England, with a recent BBC Freedom of Information report revealing an 84% increase in the amount of household waste that has been rejected for recycling, for example. While education and awareness issues will undoubtedly play a part in these statistics, the findings support the overall point that, although recycling is on the up, quality remains a significant issue.

This goes some way to explaining the launch of the Recycling Association’s new Quality First campaign – a fresh initiative to improve recyclate quality and boost market security for the materials we produce. The integrity of the waste hierarchy risks being jeopardised if a focus on quantity is to the detriment of quality.

A positive journey ahead

Of course there is a long way to go in the world of metals recycling, with Brexit, export conditions and even the classification of scrap metal all likely to play a part in its future.

For example, if, under the end-of-waste regulations, clean, high-quality metal could be considered, quite simply, as a ‘secondary raw material’, rather than waste, there would be much greater potential to partner with organisations in countries such as Indonesia and Egypt. But call it a waste and costly hurdles may remain.

As a waste system manufacturer we are therefore not professing to be able to solve everything. But we can empower operators to heighten the quality of the metal recyclates they produce, and the revenues they can yield as a result.

Project spotlight

One organisation to have overhauled its approach to metal recycling is Lancashire Waste.

Four years ago this start-up business entered the waste industry as an alternative fuel production specialist.

The plant, in Fleetwood, was purposefully built to process waste into a high-quality 30mm solid recovered fuel (SRF) for the UK and European cement industry. And, less than three years into its operation, the facility was thriving, manufacturing 75,000 tonnes of product per year.

Having used UNTHA’s waste shredders from the outset, Lancashire Waste was familiar with the technology within this Austrian-engineered fleet.

In fact, UNTHA UK’s SRF specialists had worked closely with Lancashire Waste’s managing director Jim Entwistle, when the production line first took shape in 2012.

When faced with the challenge of diminishing returns from the troubled metals market, further collaboration with UNTHA was therefore an obvious consideration.

Entwistle explains: “The metals we were pulling out of our process were so heavily contaminated with plastics and organics that we were paying to get rid of the material. This is happening in waste and recycling companies throughout the UK which, for me, represents a huge gap in waste hierarchy compliance that we should be striving to plug.

“Not only that – at the start of the year, businesses were being quoted fees as high as £60 per tonne to get rid of their dirty metal. Charges of this scale aren’t sustainable for many firms.

“So, we spoke to UNTHA about a solution. We trialled a small four-shaft shredder – the RS45 – to process lighter metals such as 3mm plates, 8mm bars and aluminium cans down to a 50mm particle size. This successfully enabled us to segregate the metal from the plastics, leaving us with clean scrap to sell for recycling. We’ve therefore placed an order for a larger RS100 that should be capable of handling virtually any metal product that we put through it, at a rate of 4 tonnes per hour.”

Instead of paying £10-60 per tonne to get rid of its dirty metals, Lancashire Waste can now earn anything from £50-80 per tonne for the valuable recyclates.

Entwistle continues: “The obvious financial benefits aside, I know that we are now doing everything we possibly can to maximise the reuse and recycling rates from our plant. In fact, with greater capacity and a more robust four-shaft shredder in operation, I hope we might even be able to take in more MRF residue and dirty metals from other regional businesses.

“This, coupled with our new SRF plant in Burnley, means our outlook, moving forward, is strong.”


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