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Tanaka: circular precious metals are already a reality

Japanese firm Tanaka Kikinzoku Kogyo counts as a precious metals production and recycling heavyweight. Its headquarters in Tokyo are complemented by subsidiaries in both the USA and Europe. Andrew Farry, business strategy manager at Tanaka, goes over the company’s ‘green’ vision for the future.

How do you see the market for recycled precious metals?

‘Whether you’re based in Toyko, Amsterdam or New York, it’s a highly competitive field. There are a handful of market leaders worldwide. I’m proud to say we’re one of them. Whether you’re talking about Umicore in Belgium or Heraeus in Germany, to name some examples, there is a lot of respect between us. We don’t fight to steal each other’s business, and we abide by high standards. On the market side of things, demand is high although prices are known to be volatile. This goes for most recycled materials, such as the platinum group metals we process. As a big company with strong roots and a rich history, we’re well-positioned to deal with the ups and downs.’

What kind of material do you process?

‘Tanaka specialises in precious metals and platinum group metals. In terms of volume, it’s mostly gold and silver (about 5 tonnes per month), followed by platinum, palladium, rhodium, ruthenium, iridium and osmium. The latter are rare earths, present in products in far smaller quantities but vital to sustaining our modern world. We handle mostly production scrap and products we get back from OEMs in the automotive and electronics sectors.

This means it’s high-quality input. What arrives on our site ranges from spent autocatalysts, vehicle spark plugs and fuel cells from electric cars to aerospace and aviation scrap. We also recycle a wide variety of e-scrap and IT equipment – hard disk drives, phones, laptops. Virtually any type of consumer device.’

Can you give some details about the newly-launched ‘Re Series’?

‘Introducing the Re Series follows our tradition of recycling, dating back to when we opened our doors in 1885. We have now expanded our manufacturing line to produce 100% recycled precious metals. The first product type in the series is a gold compound for plating. We produced the first commercial batch in April. It’s a premium grade metal that competes with mined bullion. As a next step, we will expand the series to create other fully-recycled compounds.’

How important is recycling to Tanaka’s business model?

‘Very important. It’s a moot point, really. Anyone in the smelting business knows demand for metals is high and that throwing valuable resources away doesn’t make any sense. We’ve been in this business over 130 years now and know it’s important to use what materials are available. It’s better than endlessly mining them from the earth, not least because of scarcity and also because it’s not good for the environment. In short, we want to do things right and recycling is good business.’

And what about sustainability and corporate responsibility?

‘We’re quality driven; it’s not about making every last dollar. Lots of companies chase profits, even if it means exporting what is essentially waste to Africa, Southeast Asia or Latin America. That’s why we’re very careful about who we work with. If this means not signing a contract with someone we cannot support, then so be it. We have a long-term vision, that’s why we’ve survived all this time, despite many challenges.

As for our clients, recycling targets for distinct product categories, such as cars and electronics, are commonplace nowadays and I’m glad to say big brands are heeding the call. That also ensures we get more material coming in.’

Is it feasible to imagine a world with industries that rely, at least in large part, on recycled metals?

‘That would be ideal. Recycled content is definitely taking off. Just look at the automotive sector: Japan is recycling over 98% in that segment. As it stands, though, recycling rates for gold and platinum are at approximately 30%. Recycling rates are much lower for other technology metals, especially rare earths. If we could increase collection rates, we could improve results. There is a lot of room for improvement, for sure.’

How does Tanaka see growth in precious metals demand in the next 5 to 10 years?

‘Demand will be strong in the near future. Precious metals and platinum group metals may be invisible to us as we go through our daily lives, but they make all the difference. This call wouldn’t have been possible a few decades ago; we’d have communicated via fax machine – and even that old-fashioned machine was running on some combination of metals, chips and wires.

The world has changed so much in the last ten years alone, and it will continue to change. We are inventing new technologies, new devices – new needs when you think of it. Metals are at the centre of it all. It’s why urban mining and circular business models are the future.’

Any other exciting projects or plans in the coming years?

‘The world is a big place so we are keeping our eyes open. We launched our first sales office in India in 2020. Next up, Tanaka wants to expand its precious metal recycling activities in Taiwan; the company is establishing a new building at the Hukou Plant in Hsinchu County, an investment worth 3.5 billion yen (EUR 25.6 million).

The site will serve as a “one-stop service” for precious metal recycling and further expand business in Taiwan. Our new facility is scheduled to begin operation in the first half of 2025. I’m catching a flight back to the US tomorrow to sit down with clients in Los Angeles. I’ll say this, precious metals are a dynamic industry. Stay tuned for more details!’

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