Treasure in the waste pile: how the UK could lead the world in a lucrative new green industry

Britain could help tackle a major environmental problem and become a world leader in rare metal recycling if the Government stepped in with investment, according to the boss of a Wakefield company that designs and makes metal recovery equipment.

Saturday, 14th November 2020, 12:00 pm
Chris Oldroyd, director of Inprotec, a Normanton-based company that specialises in designing and building equipment for the recovery of valuable non-ferrous metals. PHOTO: Porl Medlock.

Chris Oldroyd, director at Normanton-based Inprotec, says the world’s growing mountains of e-waste provide a rich source of elements that must be tapped if the UK is develop a truly circular economy.

“The rewards won’t just be monetary,” says Mr Oldroyd. “There are also benefits for climate change, employment, and our economy – because everybody around the world is going to need to do this.”

The company has just completed a £2.5m project to create the world’s first ‘clean’ antimony and gold processing plant in Oman, which is expected to account for between 12-15 per cent of the world’s antimony production, establishing the Arab state as a major global producer of the metal, which is used in electronics.

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The antimony used is a primary metal – one mined from the ground – but Inprotec also makes machinery that can deal with secondary, or recycled non-ferrous metals, and this is where Mr Oldroyd sees the real growth for the future.

“As far as recycling is concerned, we’ve got to make sure we keep everything in the economy,” he says. “A huge amount of money, energy and resources are put into getting that metal out of the ground and turning it into something that can be used in products. Once that’s done, it’s criminal if it does not stay in the economy. It has to stay in the economy.

“All I am trying to do with Inprotec is to make sure that technology and processes exist so that can happen.”

But he says that the UK has fallen behind in the drive to reclaim the value from this growing source of secondary metals, many of which are becoming increasingly scarce.

Of the 30 or so different elements contained in mobile phones, for example, many are rare, and supplies of six of them are forecast to run out within the next 100 years.

“I think that we’re really at risk of losing out to Europe on this. We’ve got the capability to collect that material, sort it, chop it, and shred it, but we haven’t got the ability to get back to the raw materials,” says Mr Oldroyd.

“At the moment we just ship all that shredded material over to [mainland] Europe. There must be a dozen companies in Europe that process the recycled materials back to metal form for use in the economy again.”

He continues: “Brexit made a statement about self-sufficiency, so let’s be self-sufficient. Let’s start to create facilities in the UK where we can actually process these recycled materials.

“Seventy-five per cent of the cost of recycling a lithium ion battery is the transportation of it overseas. Why would you do that? It’s just crazy.”

He says Inprotec could help make the UK self-sufficient in rare metal recycling, turning the country into a global exemplar of economic circularity.

“I produce the technology. I design the processes and design and build the technology that can do all that, but at the moment I’m only selling it across [the rest of] the world. It’s not happening in this country.

“There are companies in Europe, the United States, China, Japan and Russia tackling this, but we need to tackle it ourselves.

“We can’t just analyse this forever – we can’t have paralysis by analysis – we have to actually make a start and get on.”

He is currently working with partners including the Material Processing Institute (formerly the British Steel research and development arm) and the University of Leeds to create the technology at demonstration scale so that it can be rolled out in the UK.

But such major, complex strategic initiatives are expensive, and that’s part of the problem, he says.

“You have to process so much waste before you can break even that the cost of running the business is actually quite high. So getting people on board is a challenge,” he says.

“When it comes to investment, people want to look at it from a money perspective – ‘how much are we going to make from doing this?’ – but I’m trying to look at the social responsibility perspective as well.

“This is why the Government initially needs to step in, until it gets to the point where it’s self-sufficient from an economic standpoint.

“It’s not a cheap thing to do, to industrialise the processing of these raw materials.

“Can the UK get behind it, or is the penny going to drop too late? That’s the big question for me.”