'Increase recycling to reduce reliance on rare earth imports'

22 June 2018

The UK could reduce its dependence on imports of materials such as rare earth elements and cobalt by introducing measures to source them from waste materials, according to a report.

The report, from the Green Alliance (GA), said that while the UK wants to lead the electric vehicle and renewables markets the country, it is currently 100% reliant on imports of critical raw earths and cobalt.

The report said by introducing measures to extract these materials from discarded products, which would otherwise be wasted, it could supply more than a third of domestic rare earth demand and nearly half of domestic cobalt demand by 2035.

“The government is uniquely placed to address market failures that have led to unnecessary reliance on virgin materials, to the detriment of the environment, industry and the economy,” said the report.

While the UK’s current approach to resource management focuses almost exclusively on recycling targets, all these do is push recyclable materials into the country’s waste collection system, said GA.

The report is also advocating the UK generate a secondary plastics market which could keep an additional 2.3m tonnes of recyclable plastic in the UK and ensure this is used productively, rather than ending up polluting the environment.

And making better use of more than 10m tonnes of scrap steel produced in the UK every year could help recreate a competitive industry that is foundering in the face of overseas competition.

At present the UK exports 7.3m tonnes of scrap steel while it imports 12.3m tonnes of iron ore a year to make new products.

The key to creating a resilient domestic reprocessing infrastructure is to create markets for reused and recycled materials, said the report.

Measures to do this could include taxing the use of virgin material, or reducing VAT on reprocessed material to encourage shifts to recycled or reused content.

This could reduce the need for environmentally damaging mining operations, said the report.

Another option would be for the government to use its substantial purchasing power to increased demand for recycled or reused materials through public procurement.

Introducing price stabilising mechanisms could help the economics of reprocessing by countering material price volatility and phasing in recycled content standards would increase the use of reprocessed material in production.

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