Drastic market changes in the resources and recycling sector still a topic

The slump in prices for primary resources currently continues to dominate commodities markets around the globe. Efficient and assured primary raw materials production, materials efficiency and substitution, and also recycling, nonetheless remain a requirement for global resources supplies. On a longer-term view, the consumption of resources will, therefore, probably continue to rise in the future, too, and prices will again increase. All the more understandable, then, that interest in this year’s 9th Berlin Recycling and Commodity Conference (BR&RK) was undiminished. Just on 300 specialists from industry, scientific institutions and authorities convened in Berlin on 7 and 8 March 2016 in order to learn about the latest developments in the recycling and resources sector, in political, scientific and economic terms, and to discuss them.

Scientific leadership of the conference, following the structure now tried and tested over many years – supra-sector plenary session on the first, and sector-specific group sessions in four parallel events on the second day of the conference, organised by the TK-Verlag Nietwerder-Neuruppin publishing house, was in the capable hands of Prof. Dr.-Ing. Daniel Goldmann, of Clausthal University of Technology. Dr.-Ing. Stephanie Thiel, of the publishing house, was responsible for coordination of the programme. Adequate account was taken of the fact that the subject of resources supplies can be successfully examined only by a large number of players in the fields of science, industry, public administration and politics, and the conference programme was correspondingly conceived.

1 Plenary session – Resources policy, strategy and research

The conference was opened by Elisabeth Thomé-Kozmiensky, M.Sc., an employee of the organiser, who compared this well-established conference to a large family get-together of the world’s recyclers.

In his opening address, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Daniel Goldmann focused extremely penetratingly on the dismal situation initially mentioned, setting the audience’s mood for the conference: a significant collapse in resources prices across a broad front, tripped off by the recession in the Chinese national economy and its rate of growth, wars and refugee crises around the world, and also economic battles and price-dumping in the shadow of the political crises. On the other hand, Prof. Goldmann affirmed that little or nothing will change in long-term forecasts for resources consumption, that assurance of supplies and resources efficiency are long-term tasks, and that neglect of these activities in these fields would be a serious mistake. He also emphasised that resources efficiency and environmental protection are necessary, as the twin bases of recycling. Among other things, increasing global pressure resulted in 2015 in the foundation of the G7 initiative for resources efficiency, in order to evolve a global strategy, which must then be implemented at national level. An important role here is played by the promotion of Research & Development. Thus did Prof. Goldmann outline the wide-reaching range of topics for this year’s Berlin conference.

The other papers presented at the plenary session also examined the price slump on resources markets and the consequences for resources efficiency and for recycling. Reinhard Bütikover, responsible for resources policy at the EU Parliament in Brussels, thus regretted, in his address entitled “The European Parliament’s resources policy”, that only little institutional attention is devoted to the subject of resources efficiency, that resources-­policy considerations are ignored, and that many related projects have been put on ice. As he stated, there is reason to fear that the price drop – by 80 % in the case of rare earths, for example, and the loss of 32 billion US$ which hit the five largest global resources producers in 2015 – will also continue in 2016. One should also note, he continued, that resources partnerships, an important topic in the past, are scarcely practised any more, as, for example, in the case of the “electronic scrap” recycling partnership with Africa.

Prof. Dr. Rainer Bunge, HSR Hochschule für Technik Rapperswil, Switzerland, formulated his subject somewhat provocatively, as “Recycling is good, more recycling is better – or is it?”, and immediately disclosed: recycling is good, more recycling is better, infinite recycling is crazy! Starting with considerations of the waste flows in a global economy (OECD and threshold countries), this speaker then examined issues of correct recycling. Income rises proportionally to the degree of recovery (DoR), but costs increase more than proportionally. The economic optimum is at that DoR at which profit is maximised, signifying that 100 % recycling is not affordable. It is also irrational from an ecological point of view, however, since it then becomes inferior to recovery from primary resources. It was shown that there is an optimum ecological DoR for every recycling system. The aim, overall, should be to achieve the best possible cost:benefit efficiency. The economic and ecological optimum should, wherever possible, coincide in a rational recycling system. A heated discussion, ranging from questions of the definition of the term “recycling” up to and including the remark that strategic considerations had not been taken into account, then followed. Responding, Prof. Bunge pointed out geostrategic considerations could not removed from the responsibility of the politicians.

Prof. Dr. Dr. hc. Markus Reuter, of the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology, outlined the “Potentials and limitations of a circular economy”. He emphasised the importance of thermodynamics for a smart digitised Circular Economy 4.0, which must take into account and interlink with one another all sectors – from the recovery of resources, via production, up to and including recycling. The development of computer simulations and optimisation models, he noted, requires large data-bases which, however, are in many cases incomplete, permitting the drawing of incorrect conclusions. “A customer wants to know what profit he can achieve, but also the risk he is taking.”

Dipl.-Ing. Peter Hoffmeyer, of Nehlsen AG, Bremen, advocated resources-protection by means of CO2-optimised waste management in the fields of materials-route and energy-route valorisation, and smart landfill management. He, too, mentioned the need for attention to the recyclability of products as early as production, demanded genuine product rather than financial responsibility, and examined the creative potentials offered by charge systems to ensure that the hierarchy of waste management is not lost.

Papers from three federal ministries focused on initiatives, funding programmes and draft legislation for resources efficiency. Dipl.-Mathe. ­Reinhardt Kaiser, of the federal environment ministry, Berlin, for example, spoke on the advances made on an international, European and German scale. He considered the G7 Alliance on Resources Efficiency to be a positive step. A corresponding G20 initiative is even planned, upon the takeover of the leadership by Germany in 2017. Only sluggish activities by the European Commission, with no statement concerning any European resources-efficiency target, can be reported, on the other hand, not least of all as a result of the reformation of the Environmental Commission in 2014. The more pleasing, therefore, the implementation of Germany’s resources-efficiency programme, which is updated every four years and now formulates, in the form of ProgRess II (2016), targets up to 2020 for sustainable resources supplies, resources-efficient production and resources-efficient consumption. The discussion made clear that there are reservations concerning Germany’s go-it-alone stance, which could endanger Germany as a location. The figures for the national CO2-reduction programme, for example, must not lead to Germany not producing any steel any more. Equally, the aim of using ever fewer and ever less resources must not result in industry coming to a standstill (zero resources consumption = maximum resources efficiency!).

Dr. Lothar Mennicken, of the federal education and research ministry (BMBF), Bonn, spoke on “Contributions by the BMBF research funding programme to sustainable resources supplies”. He explained the federal government’s research-policy framework (Sustainability Strategy 2002, Resources Strategy 2010 and the German Resources Efficiency programme 2012) and the FONA³ – Research for Sustainable Research framework programme, with the three lead initiatives – Green Economy, Future City and Energy Turnaround. These are intended to assist industry in the transition to an environmentally and socially viable economy. The r², r³, KMU-innovativ, CO2-utilisation and CLIENT funding programmes serve the purpose of promoting Research & Development in innovative resources technologies and the sustainable use of resources.

“You need a lot of patience if you want something good”, was the conclusion of Ministerial Secretary Dr. jur. Thomas Rummler, who was obliged to note that there is not much new to report about the “Status of work on the Recyclables Act” compared to the October 2015 draft. The Federal Council’s resolution, which contained many conducive elements, such as consumer-friendly and standardised recyclables collection, for example, was submitted in January 2016. Now, however, technical discourse was on the agenda, concerning, for example, the definition of non-packaging items of similar materials, the collection quantities of recyclables, the recycling rates for plastics, the award of collecting service contracts and the requirements profile for expert assessors and inspectors.

The paper by Dr.-Ing. Alexander Gosten, of BSR Berliner Stadtreinigungsbetriebe, constituted a leap from theory to practice, with its deliberations on the question of “What benefits does the recyclables bin bring”. Many years of experience in Berlin have shown that genuine recyclables do not find their way into the recyclables bin – anything of value, and metals and many other used but still serviceable objects, are sold by the owner. Dr. Gosten cited six questions to show that the costs and the benefits of a recyclables bin are not in a rational proportion, and that no significant contribution is made.

In conclusion, Dr. Sabine Langkau, Fraunhofer Competence Center for Sustainability and Infrastructure Systems ISI, Karlsruhe, reported on a study into “Resources for future technologies” and examined highlights from the updating project. From a collection of 200 new technologies, the most interesting are selected for analysis, and future scenarios for the year 2035 drafted (taking account of the time necessary for the construction of a mine). This is intended to outline the risks to potential market players and to provide assistance on corresponding countermeasures. The procedure was explained in detail, examining the example of the heavy rare earths.

2 Panel discussion

The conference’s first day closed with the now traditional panel discussion, this year on the subject of “The circular economy in the context of assured raw materials and resources-efficiency”. The debate thus, in reality, drew all the preceding papers together, while Prof. Goldmann, chairing, was able to cite highly capable speakers from the worlds of politics, industry and science. The questions of what elements will have strategic importance, and of European resources policy, were firstly discussed. Dr. Hagelüken emphasised that the circular economy is not as bad as it is often claimed to be, and that there are potentials for high-quality recycling. But there is also the question of what is to be done at national level. No less than 5 % of total tantalum production in Germany ends up in the residual waste bin, for example. The recycling of small electrical appliances may, at present, still be lagging, but the take-back obligation introduced in May 2015 will improve the results. Nonetheless, a purely national view is just not sufficient. Dr. Rummler drew attention to the fact that tracking of the resources industry necessitates looking beyond narrow national boundaries. More than half of all EU members still landfill dump 50 % of their waste. This demonstrates just how important a European circular economy is. The targets for production, substitution and recycling must be agreed and defined for this purpose.

As expected, another item discussed was the upcoming Recyclables Act. There was unanimity that this Act will not solve the resources supply problem. Opinions then diverged, however. Retrogressive development was not intended, say the pro­ponents of the Act. Even if separation technologies have now been greatly improved, and incineration permits the recovery of numerous recyclables (metals), the Recyclables Act should nonetheless also be regarded as a symbol for the citizen in retaining separate collection as an efficient separation method. Frequently unqualified collecting practice, chargeable (residual waste) and free-of-charge disposal (recyclables), and the definition of “recycling rates”, were also debated.

3 Sector-specific sessions

A large range of sector-specific papers awaited the participants on the second day of the conference. It would be impossible to examine all these papers within a reasonable framework for this report, but the focal topics and a few representative technically orientated papers and their authors are briefly discussed below.

3.1 Metals recycling

Both iron and steel, and also non-ferrous metals, were the focus of the papers in this section. Both recycling strategies and forecasts of yields of metal scrap were examined, as were preparation-technology tests on various types of steel scrap, and separation methods for the recycling of metals-containing composites. One important topic was Recycling 4.0, i.e., “The supra-material and supra-industry creation of energy-optimised materials cycles that will permit recycling with higher rates of added value” (M. Stelter). Dipl.-Ing. Jan Ehrig, of the TU Bergakademie Freiberg University of Resources, cited two metallurgical examples – the recovery of lithium from Li-ion batteries and of lead and indium from lead-silicate glasses – to explain this strategy. Methods have been developed and tested on a laboratory scale which combine the various material flows (primary and secondary raw materials) in a combined process, in order thus to achieve a higher concentration of recyclables. In the case of Li, tests using greisen ore/zinnwaldite concentrate and life-expired Li batteries indicated that the hybrid combination of the resources can be accomplished as early as the pyrometallurgical stage. The second example concerned the joint recycling of lead-containing glasses and indium-containing scrap (LCD monitor screens), with the objective of recovering Pb, In and other metals, in addition to a saleable glass. Many difficulties and problems complicate this process, but feasibility in principle has been ascertained. Cost-efficiency investigations remain to be performed, and further tests in semi-commercial-scale systems are also planned.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Rüdiger Deike, of the University of Duisburg-Essen, devoted his deliberations to the “Importance of energy-intensive metallurgical plants on the criterion of recycling of iron/steel and non-ferrous metals”. Starting with observations of the global and national development of population, industry, environmental protection and philosophical considerations of social responsibility and ethical principles, he relativised the statements from the 1973 “Limits of growth” study using up-to-date data material. From the production of steel and non-ferrous metals, he derived the postulation that economic growth, and therefore the consumption of resources, too, change not exponentially, but instead in accordance with logistical functions. Prof. Deike cited many examples to demonstrate that the enhancement of resources-efficiency is a notable feature of the metallurgical industry. The use of steel and non-ferrous scrap makes it possible to produce new metal products with improved properties (up-recycling) – something unique to the metallurgical industry.

We should also mention a third paper, “An industry in flux – from the classical scrap dealer to the service-orientated recycling enterprise”, in which Christian Blackert and Torben Kraffczyk, of TSR Recycling GmbH & Co. KG, Bottrop, outlined their company’s route and the challenges which nowadays confront it on the global market. The scrap companies are also suffering as a result of the collapse in prices for ores (by 78 % from 2011 to 2015) and from the drastic increase in scrap prices (a continuous price rise by approx. 200 % from 2008 to 2011). Also to be noted are more stringent legal requirements in the form of waste-management, water-management, pollution and industrial-safety law.

The addresses on “Recycling methods for copper-metallurgy by-products” (Dipl.-Ing. Stephan Steinacker, University of Leoben) and “Recovery of electronics metals from solar-panel scrap by means of microwave-assisted vacuum distillation” (Diana Michaelis, M.Sc., RWTH Aachen University) provide further examples of how research institutions are attempting to open up new routes for metals recycling.

3.2 Recycling of plastics and paper

In the field of plastics, biologically degradable materials (Ministerial Secretary Dr.-Ing. Ulrich Bertram, Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Climate Protection, Lower Saxony, Hanover) and the separation of composite materials for the recovery of secondary resources (Dr. Sebastian Kernbaum, saperatec GmbH, Bielefeld) came under discussion. The topics examined in the field of paper recycling were also highly interesting: in addition to the development of requirements for the recyclability of paper products (Dipl.-Ing. Saskia Runte et. al., TU Darmstadt), the potentials for materials-route recycling via Industry 4.0 were also discussed, focussing on the example of the paper value chain (Dipl.-Ing. Lydia Tempel, PTS papermaking foundation, Heidenau), as was an alternative utilisation for paper-production by-products, taking account of price trends in thermal valorisation (Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Christian Dornack, TU Dresden).

3.3 Recycling of electrical/electronic equipment and vehicles

No less than eight papers were devoted to this important recycling topic, examining both research work (e.g. mechanical and hydrometallurgical antimony recycling from printed-circuit board reprocessing waste, the recoverability of critical metals from life-expired electrical and electronic equipment), and also legal provisions (e.g. trans-border transportation and sale of electrical and electronic equipment). Deposit systems for small electrical and electronic appliances, and recycling as an integral component of the vehicle industry’s life-cycle assessment, were also discussed, however. Prof. Goldmann threw a critical light on “Current developments and challenges in the recycling of electric and hybrid vehicles”. He summarised with the conclusion that developments in vehicle concepts and also in individual components – primarily traction batteries, electric motors and power electronics – are notable for a high level of dynamism, making forecasting extremely difficult.

3.4 Process-engineering

An interesting example of fundamental research as the basis for process-engineering was examined by Dr.-Ing. habil. Siegmar Schäfer, of ANDRITZ MeWa GmbH, Freiberg, in his deliberations on “Comminution in the recycling of pulper rags”. These are generated in the processing of used paper in the paper industry, and form an intensive metallic bond between metal (tie wires) and non-metallic components (plastic films, textile remnants, etc.). Useful components include, in particular, the steel wires, which make up around 15 to 35 % of content, referred to dry substance. The speaker demonstrated the functional principles by means of which effective comminution and thus successful recycling of this waste can be achieved. An optimised system concept was derived from the results, and discussed. The UC 1300 twin-shaft universal comminutor (pre-comminution) and the modified and further developed UG 1600 S universal granulator (digestion crushing) have proven extremely successful in practical use. Good prices can be obtained for the steel fraction (with impurities of < 1 %). An RDF fraction, which contains the major portion of the input material’s moisture (25 to 40 % by mass) is also produced.

The use of sensor-assisted sorting systems is nowadays state-of-the-art and has revolutionised the processing of waste. In this field, too, however, further developments refine and expand applications, as Mag. Richard Dornauer, of Binder+Co AG, Gleisdorf, Austria, illustrated in his deliberations on “Potentials and applications for the latest VIS/NIR sorting systems in the preparation of secondary feed materials”. Following a historical retrospective, which reviewed the extremely rapid development of sensor technology, this speaker focused on his company’s latest technology: sensor fusion. This method exploits various optical properties, using a single sensor combination, achieving greater informational value in a single process operation, combined with the detection of a large range of feed-material features. The VIS/NIR combination was used to illustrate separation of a 10 to 40 mm mixed plastic fraction, with extraction of the white fraction. A corresponding system is in operation in South Korea, and this technology is also suitable for the extraction of the de-inking fraction in processing of used paper (plant operating near Berlin).

The difficulties involved in the sampling of waste, particularly when in the form of bales, are widely known. Dr. Martin Wellacher, of the University of Leoben, examined the question of which parameter is of informational value and with what accuracy it can be determined in his address on “New method for sampling of baled waste”. Direct sampling was performed using various tools (hole saw, auger bit, chainsaw, core drill) on plastic bales containing doped material (Mo enclosed in PE). The concrete-core bit yielded the best results. Assessment against the state-of-the-art demonstrated that there are both extremely well distributed and less well distributed parameters, and that a parameter-specific measured value must be specified. Heterogeneity and segregation during baling are, in this method, too, the difficulties which permit precise registration only after knowledge of the parameter distribution. The continuation of this work will include improvement of the bit (cutter geometry and steel grade) and an increase in the power rating of the drill’s drive motor.

3.5 r³ Research & Development results – Strategic metals and minerals

This section reported on research work and the results of research work supported with significant funds in the context of the federal government’s funding provisions for innovative resources technologies, targeting smart and sustainable use of resources. Three of the nine papers, focussing on the most diverse input materials (e.g. lead-acid batteries, trace metals from electrical and electronic equipment, composite building materials) are summarised here as typical.

The joint “Recovery of In by means of efficient recycling of LCD monitor screens (InAcess)” project was examined by Dipl.-Ing. Guido Sellin, of Elektrocycling GmbH, Goslar. After a discussion of the project as a whole, the individual focuses of collection, transport and operational logistics were discussed in detail, as were the manual and mechanical treatment of the LCD screens. It is necessary to start as early as the collection stage to achieve cost-effective, resources-efficient recycling. This was illustrated by the setting-up of a used-appliance collecting centre featuring specially made grid containers. Extensive PR work and cooperation with the municipal disposal organisation also had an extremely beneficial influence on this project. Not only the dismantling methods for LCD monitor screens with edge and direct backlight, but also a process for recovery of Li (mechanical processing, hydrometallurgical treatment), using which nearly 95 % of the In contained in the LCD display can be recovered, has also been developed. The method is not cost-efficient at the present low prices for In (a drop from 800 to 1000 €/t to 200 €/t), however.

The “TönsLM – Recovery of recyclables from residential-waste and slag landfills” project was the focus selected by Dipl.-Wirtsch. Anna Breitenstein, of the TU Braunschweig. Analyses of 8000 t of retrieved material from the “Pohlsche Heide” landfill commissioned in 1988 in the County of Minden-Lübecke demonstrated that retrieval and the recovery of recyclables (Enhanced Landfill Mining) is even now technically possible and is ecologically rational. The example selected is not cost-effective, on the other hand. Site and treatment costs at the waste-incineration plants and waste-treatment plants exert a great influence on this factor. Careful calculations are therefore always necessary in each individual case.

Prof. Hermann Heilmeier, of the TU Bergakademie Freiberg University of Resources, examined, as he himself noted, a somewhat exotic alternative process, in the form of “Phytogerm”. This is a phytomining process, i.e., the recovery of (trace) elements, including germanium, for example, from plants. The project encompasses the entire process, from the selection and cultivation of the plants, via fermentation of the biomass, up to and including Ge extraction. The objectives of the project, being conducted jointly with Bauer Umwelt GmbH, are the identification of Ge accumulators, boosting of Ge absorption, and the development of an integrated process for the extraction of the Ge. The best variant proved to be distillative recovery of Ge from digestate bins. Some 39 kg/a of GeO2 can be cost-efficiently recovered at a Ge content in the dry biomass of 10 ppm and at the current price for Ge of 1313 €/kg (December 2015). Attention was also drawn during the discussion to, inter alia, the problems of the enormous quantities of liquid manure from the biogas plants.

4 Concluding remarks 

The Berlin Recycling and Commodity Conference has, yet again, reaffirmed its high ranking among the large number of conferences held both in Germany and abroad on this subject, not only thanks to the number of participants, but also due to the excellent speakers and the diverse and far-reaching agenda. The organiser succeeds again and again in selecting, from the plethora of scientific research projects and industrial applications, topics of general interest which, however – in the sector-specific series of papers, in particular – impart special knowledge and stimulate interesting discussions and, frequently, refreshing scientific disputes. It was apparent that new paths had been set since last year, with great commitment and a wealth of ideas, particularly in scientific terms, in order to further recycling and resources-efficiency. The political world, on the other hand, is lagging behind; draft acts are one thing, but actually enacted laws and their implementation quite another. Incomprehensible periods of time frequently gape between these two poles. Despite European legislation and directives, great differences in the field of recycling and of resources-efficiency continue to exist within the EU.

The majority of the papers are included in “Recycling und Rohstoffe”, Volume 9, ISBN 978 –3-944310-27-5 TK Verlag Karl Thomé-Kozmiensky, Neuruppin 2016. The next Berlin Recycling and Commodity Conference is to be held from 6 to 7 March 2017.

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