Boliden Group is a global leader in electronics recycling. One of its smelters alone processes 120 000 tonnes of e-scrap per year. Raymond Langevoort, the company’s copper expert, looks at the latest trends shaping the sector.
Can you describe Boliden’s operations in a nutshell?
‘We are a base metals company, operating in five major mining areas of which the Aitik copper mine and Garpenberg zinc mine are the two largest mines in Sweden. The company’s smelter division operates six plants: a secondary lead smelter in Bergsöe, Sweden; our Odda zinc smelter in Norway; the Kokkola zinc smelter in Finland; the Rönnskär copper smelter in Sweden; and the Harjavalta copper and nickel smelter in Finland.’
What about your recycling activities?
‘As well as lead, zinc, copper and nickel, Boliden also produces by-products such as gold, silver, palladium and sulphuric acid. The Rönnskär smelter is one of the largest consumers of e-scrap and other secondary raw materials as the last step in the recycling chain.
What makes Rönnskär unique is the capability to handle hazardous elements in a sustainable manner. The smelter produces low carbon copper from primary raw materials as well as secondary raw materials. The low carbon copper produced from concentrates at our Aitik mine has the lowest carbon footprint. This has been achieved by high efficiency, automation and electrification at the mine and smelter, and the low CO2 footprint electricity mix in Sweden.’
What is your role at Boliden?
‘My role is to take care of the raw materials supply to both copper smelters. This includes a large volume of primary raw materials produced by mines around the globe, as well as secondary raw materials. I am supported by a team of seven purchasing managers located in different places but mainly near smelters to be close to the raw materials delivered by our suppliers.’
How important is e-scrap to Boliden’s day-to-day business?
‘Electronic waste is an important source of critical metals like copper. The demand for copper is growing due to the rapid increase in electrification, such as e-mobility and the infrastructure for charging stations, and the demand for sustainable energy.
I am proud that e-scrap, smelted and refined at Boliden’s smelters, contributes to a better future. Did you know, for example, that Boliden’s low carbon copper is used to build the Dogger Bank windfarm, the largest currently under construction?’
What about the importance of e-scrap to the world?
‘We have to remember that copper from primary sources alone will not be sufficient to meet society’s demand for the metal. The treatment of electronic waste comes with several challenges though. The scrap has an increasing proportion of plastic content and lower metal content. This means more effort is needed to treat the material properly, so potentially more CO2 is emitted and less metal is recovered.
This puts greater strain on the whole recycling chain and we are working on improving our processes to make sure that such materials can still be smelted at Boliden’s smelters in the future. After all, sufficient treatment capacity is required locally to handle the increasing amount of electronic waste and to avoid moving it around the globe, which would result in higher costs and more CO2 emissions.’
What is Boliden’s strategy to overcome such challenges?
‘When talking about the valuable materials in electronic waste, we have to ensure our processes can handle the reduced metal content and the higher level of impurities and plastics. This can be a challenge technically but even more so economically.
Recycling is not cost-free and involves many stakeholders completing the cycle. All are currently facing increased costs due to inflation and higher energy prices but also related to the development of processes for dismantling and sorting.
Regarding energy, Boliden’s smelters are using heat generated from smelting raw materials in our own processes as well as distributing heat to nearby communities. Tighter regulations are there for a reason and they encourage producers, consumers and recyclers to put sustainable processes in place. The problem is that regulations sometimes change more quickly than stakeholders can adapt to.
Some of the regulations Boliden understands very well, such as those about where electronic waste may be shipped and where it may be treated. As far as we’re concerned, taking care of our own waste to high sustainability standards within Europe is a good place to start.’
What’s on the horizon for the electronics recycling sector?
‘The future will be challenging. A lot of progress is needed to secure proper and sustainable recycling and to accommodate the increase in electronic waste. This is why collaboration with other recycling stakeholders such as our suppliers is vital to maximise recycling and value creation.’