JX Nippon Mining & Metals Corporation has evolved from a Japanese copper mining company into a leader in global non-ferrous recycling. ‘Approximately 20% of our copper products come from recycled material which we collect globally,’ says Yu Miyama, manager for the European recycling business at JX Metals’ representative office in Frankfurt. The company’s ambitious ten-year plan suggests that this is just the beginning.
JX Metals has a rich and long history, dating back to 1905. Japanese entrepreneur Fusanosuke Kuhara founded the Hitachi mine from which the group originated. JX Metals’ team, which is today 10 000 strong, initially focussed on mining copper in the area. In the following years, the power of scrap became ever more apparent.
The company, which is headquartered in Tokyo, gradually expanded its reach to collecting production scrap and discarded metals in the region and started smelting gold, silver, platinum, palladium and other valuable metals such as cobalt, lithium, zinc, lead and tin.
‘Our recycling activities are almost as old as our mining activities because we realised we could return production scrap to the same process,’ Miyama says. ‘In this sense, the closed loop principle is practically built into our core business.’
While JX Metals grew its portfolio and upgraded its smelters, it also expanded its geographical reach in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it has operating sites in the US, Canada, Chile, Taiwan and Germany. ‘We think it’s important to have an international view on things in this industry,’ says Thomas Zipfel, senior advisor at JX Metals Frankfurt.
STRONG COPPER PRESENCE
The face of JX Metals, however, has not changed. Copper remains the driving force behind its operations. ‘We are an integrated non-ferrous metals producer and recycler with a strong focus on copper,’ says Miyama. Speaking of the recycling feedstock, she notes an increase in end-of-life printed circuit boards (PCBs) during the last 15 years.
The figures reflect this: annually, JX Metals produces 450 000 tonnes of copper, seven tonnes of gold; 200 tonnes of silver; 0.6 tonnes of platinum; and 2.7 tonnes of palladium. Zipfel emphasises that battery metals are gaining momentum, too. ‘We can handle any type of treated e-scrap and of any quality. Some material is low grade, others high grade.’
At the same time, JX Metals offers state-of-the-art sampling to ensure transparent, fast and accurate compensation to its suppliers. ‘This is how we build trust and how we stay competitive. It also helps that we work directly with recyclers, who are typically big players, operating fully in accordance with compliance, rather than relying on traders.’
Zipfel underlines that JX Metals covers a very wide range of activities. ‘We do resource development, mining, R&D work to maximise the output volume and quality of our concentrates, refining, and we offer final products to the market, for example electronics and semiconductor manufacturers.’
Enabling a closed loop for copper and also other important technology metals on such a large scale is ‘pretty unique’, he insists. Establishing a foothold in Europe was inspired by the high e-scrap collection rates in EU nations. ‘The continent has strict laws for end-of-life electronics, which the WEEE Directive embodies. As a result, e-scrap from Europe is known to be clean and available in large quantities,’ Zipfel adds.
‘We opened the Frankfurt office in 2017 mainly to find new business opportunities in and around Germany.’ JX Metals has also cast its eye on North America, which is currently the second largest generator of e-scrap worldwide behind China.
This summer, JX Metals acquired Canadian electronics recycling firm eCycle Solutions Inc., which operates eight sites across the country. The acquisition is expected to boost JX Metals’ treated e-scrap collection network while investing in a sustainable future.
TOWARDS NET ZERO
‘We also love countries like Germany that have a strong start-up culture. I’m confident it will help us create green partnerships, secure our position and benefit the recycling chain as a whole,’ Miyama says. Meanwhile, JX Metals remarks that renewable energy and the electrification of industry will be critical in the journey to carbon neutrality.
Copper is an essential resource in electrical infrastructure and will be critical on the journey to Net Zero. This raises the stakes for copper recycling once more. Of course, this is also the case for other valuable metals, such as lithium and cobalt.
With that in mind, JX Metals aims to produce 25% of recycled metals by 2030 and wants to push this to 50% by 2040. ‘This is a big leap from 20%, I know, but we still have some time,’ says Miyama with a laugh. ‘We are very ambitious and want to achieve this target.’
JX Metals has already taken several steps to help reach its goal. In 2021, the company integrated its smelting technology and recycling technology departments to better align development of its ‘green’ hybrid smelting process. This allows copper concentrate and copper scrap to be smelted simultaneously in a flash smelting furnace.
The Saganoseki smelter and refinery has implemented the hybrid process, which uses the heat generated by ore oxidation in the smelting process to produce a copper anode using almost no fossil fuels. In its efforts to increase recycling rates at the smelter, JX Metals expanded the Changpin Recycle Center in Taiwan and established the Oita Recycling Logistics Center to better collect and pre-treat material for recycling at the Saganoseki smelter.
JX Metals is critical of the proposed changes to the Waste Shipment Regulation and its effect on material availability and trade. ‘The draft does not support the circular economy,’ Zipfel points out. ‘Many key players believe that it would undermine progress on European recycling targets, as less material may be collected.’
If so, this would result in unnecessary CO2 emissions and environmental damage. ‘We believe it is best to safeguard fair and free trade of raw material from recycling – it is not waste,’ Zipfel underlines. ‘Restrictions on export outside the EU should be limited on problematic waste such as batteries or other contaminated wastes.’
Reducing dependency remains a concern, especially since there are thousands of tonnes of metals currently unavailable in the so-called urban mine: in desks, garages and basements everywhere. JX Metals’ team hopes greater awareness of recycling will encourage more people to hand in their old devices.
Eager to do its part, the company created a cartoon about recycling to educate youngsters on the importance of sustainability. ‘It’s available at shops and is being used at elementary school to get kids talking about recycling,’ Miyama says. ‘Awareness is where it all starts, after all.’
She recounts how, during the Covid-19 lockdown, people took the time to clean up and recycle. ‘Collection volumes actually went up,’ Zipfel recalls. ‘The home office situation sparked more e-scrap being offered for recycling. ‘There are always external factors that impact volumes – sometimes good, sometimes not.
Luckily, JX Metals is doing well, regardless. Growth is stable.’ Yet it’s vital to keep moving, the company insists. Its subsidiary, Taniobis, has therefore joined a Volkswagen-led research project to advance battery recycling. It will help its consortium partners conduct tests on black mass at a new hydrometallurgical plant in Goslar, Germany.
JX Metals is also collaborating with researchers and engineers at Tokyo University, mainly on metal recycling R&D projects. ‘By working together, we hope innovative recycling solutions will have a better chance at success,’ Miyama says. This leads back to JX Metals’ belief in direct communication, full transparency and continuous improvement.