Title: [GreenYes] NEWS: rare metals recovery from electronics in Japan
City takes lead in recycling rare metals
BY HARUFUMI MORI, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
Rising mountains of electronic trash are an emerging source of rare
metals. Old household appliances too small to be covered by recycling
ordinances--digital cameras, game consoles and so on--tend to be thrown
out as non-combustible garbage. Meanwhile, rare metals increasingly
indispensable to industrial production are found in only a few countries
around the world, and their prices are soaring. If trash is a viable
source of these metals, so much the better. There are problems,
however--not the least of which is the cost of extracting them.
Odate city in northern Akita Prefecture has placed collection boxes for
junked appliances at the entrances to supermarkets and community
centers. The boxes soon fill up with unwanted hair dryers, telephones
and the like. A 68-year-old male shopper sums up the spirit of the
enterprise. "If there are usable parts in these things," he says, "it'd
be a waste not to collect them."
Odate, a former mining town with a population of 80,000, is home to
various enterprises equipped with advanced scouring technology. In
December 2006, with the aid of subsidies from the Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry, it launched the nation's first experiment in
recycling small household electronic goods. The initiative came
originally from a recycling research group made up of researchers and
appliance makers. The group requested the city's cooperation. The city,
eager to reduce its trash burden, responded positively.
The 11 months from April 2007 to February 2008 yielded 9,626
items--roughly 17 tons of electronic trash. "We're an old mining town,"
says Masanori Narita, deputy head of the city's environment section.
"Lots of people here know the value of metal."
The refuse is inspected by a team supervised by Takashi Nakamura, a
professor at the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced
Materials at Tohoku University in Sendai. Nakamura notes the nature of
each item, the year of its manufacture, and what metals it contains.
Often there are trade secrets involved, meaning the apparatus in
question must be taken apart in order to ascertain the metallic content.
"As cellphones grow smaller and more versatile," says Nakamura, "rare
metals are increasingly used in their manufacture."
Scarce to begin with, rare metals are increasingly in demand worldwide.
Their prices have soared. According to data furnished by the
incorporated administrative agency Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National
Corporation (JOGMEC), five years ago the price of nickel, used in making
stainless steel, was approximately 950,000 yen per ton. Last year it
peaked at more than five times that. Manganese, a component of
batteries, is trading at 6-7 times its price in the 1990s.
Rare metals tend to occur in concentrated deposits. South Africa, for
example, yields nearly 90 percent of the world's platinum. Supply can
therefore hinge--often precariously--on the policies and political
situations of the producing countries. No wonder the "urban mines" of
trashed electric appliances, with their stores of rare metals, are
drawing increasing attention.
The implications, if the recycling goes well, are vast. Nakamura, based
on what has been examined so far of the 6.8 tons of trashed appliances
collected during the first three months of the Odate experiment,
estimates a potential yield of 0.5 kilogram of tantalum, used in
condensers, and 1 kg of gold. The harvest of an alloy of silver and
palladium could come to as much as 4 kg. Annual domestic demand for
palladium is estimated at 50 tons.
Odate's initiative is spreading--throughout Akita Prefecture from
October and as far away as Kita-Kyushu, which in September began setting
up small appliance collection boxes at stores and schools. For two
months beginning in October, Tokyo metropolitan government is providing
20 collection boxes for disused cellphones at subway stations and other
In the supplementary budget that passed the Diet Oct. 16, the
Environment Ministry allotted 75 million yen to subsidize regional
recycling experiments and assess their results.
Electronic junk may represent a treasure trove--but, warns Nakamura, "We
have a long way to go" before its rare metal content can be accurately
ascertained and before a suitable collection mechanism is in place to
save the stuff from ending up as landfill. "If such valuable materials
are buried in a trash dump, then we can't recycle them," he says.
Difficulties abound. At Eco-Recycle Co. in Odate, various phases of the
operation, from sorting the disused appliances to scouring their
components, are contracted out. Disassembling the appliances is done by
hand by company employees. "Rare metals must be extracted from the
appliance before it goes into the furnace," says Eco-Recycle President
For example: There is no technology to separate in a furnace tungsten,
which is used for alloys, from iron and other materials. And indium,
used in making liquid crystal, can be profitably extracted only in large
quantities, which requires an enormous number of used appliances. "For
this to be practical," says Yamaguchi, "we need to arrive at a consensus
on who bears the cost burden."
Nakamura's worry is that recyclers will concentrate exclusively on iron
and copper, which can be extracted in sufficient quantity to be
profitable, and leave rare metals, more problematic in that regard,
alone. "Rare metals do pose serious problems," he says. "But the supply
of rare metals is in danger of drying up, which should encourage the
government to take a long-range view of the situation."(IHT/Asahi:
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