August 2015

Wealth from waste

  • By Artem Golev, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Glen Corder MAusIMM (CP), Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, Sustainable Minerals Institute; and D Giurco MAusIMM, Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
mining equipment

Depicting metals flows in the Australian economy and uncovering opportunities for higher value from recycling

Australia’s rich stocks of mineral resources have been the source of national wealth and competitive advantage for successive generations. Having the luxury of an abundance of natural resources and a comparatively low population has enabled Australia to be a global leader of resources in the international market.

While Australia will export mineral resources well into the future, Australia as a technologically advanced nation needs to consider alternative sources of revenue generation and competitive advantage. Waste materials, which were once considered of little or no value, are now becoming accessible and valuable as ‘above-ground’ mineral resources. Globally there is growing capacity and innovation in recycling and closed-loop supply chains (World Economic Forum, 2014). Australia is well placed on the back of its world leading mining, mineral processing and metallurgy expertise to contribute to producing metals from alternative sources.

The purpose of this article is to illustrate the current rates of metals flows and consumption in the Australian economy and present the potential for increased metals recycling and speculate on the pathways to generating more metals from ‘above-ground’ mineral resources.

Australia – a leader in primary metals mining and processing

The makeup of exported natural resources falls into three main categories: energy related (coal, oil, natural gas, uranium), metal related (eg iron ore, gold, alumina), and others (eg gems). As Figure 1 shows, metals and metal concentrates currently deliver the country’s main resources export revenue (58 per cent in 2012-13), followed by energy resources such as coal, natural gas and uranium (38 per cent). More than 90 per cent of minerals mined in Australia are directly exported. For metals and metal concentrates this figure is close to 98 per cent.


In 2012-13, Australia exported more than 570 million tonnes of metallic content materials containing more than 300 million tonnes of extractable metals, that is as either concentrates (eg iron ore, alumina, copper, zinc, lead, manganese) or in the form of refined metals (eg nickel, gold, silver) or chemicals (eg titanium dioxide pigment). Figure 2 shows the breakdown by weight and value.


The metals and metal concentrates production in Australia is more than 99 per cent (by weight) represented by five elements – iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, and manganese (Figure 3; BREE 2013). Australia is the largest producer of iron ore and bauxite, covering more than 20 per cent of world needs in minerals to produce steel and aluminium (BREE, 2013; USGS, 2014), a leading producer of titanium and zirconium concentrates, and among top five countries in the production of copper, zinc, manganese, nickel, and gold (USGS, 2014).


Nevertheless while the overall production and export of metal concentrates has increased over the last decade, the production of refined metals declined, predominately due to the decrease in steel output resulting from the closure of steelworks. On per capita basis, the figure dropped from 545 kg to 349 kg for the six-year period up to 2012-13.

Metals consumption in Australia

Understandably metal production and direct shipment data are typically well-recorded through national and international statistics allowing for estimation of the apparent (industrial) consumption of major metals – that is adjusting for direct imports less direct exports. The apparent domestic consumption of metals in the 2012-13 period was about 6 million tonnes (Figure 4).


True metal consumption – that is adjusting for the difference between all indirect import and export flows, where metals are associated with fabricated and manufactured goods, eg preassembled construction structures, machinery, vehicles, and consumer products – is typically significantly higher or lower than the apparent consumption. The true metal consumption and in-use stocks are not easy to estimate, requiring more detailed investigation and often relying on multiple assumptions and expert opinion.

Metals in waste and recycling levels

The Australian economy is one of the fastest growing among developed countries (Trading Economics, 2014), allowing for higher individual incomes, consumption rates, and overall standard of living. A side-effect of this standing is that there is a higher level of urban metal stocks resulting in waste generation and giving rise to greater potential for recycling.

The energy requirements and carbon footprint for most recycled metals is 50-99 per cent lower compared with primary produced metals. On the other hand, world demand for metals is predominantly covered by primary production.

However, an important question is how much of metal content in the end-of-life products is actually recycled, and how much is lost to landfills. On a global basis, current estimations indicate that the recycling rate is above 50 per cent for 18 metals and for another six metals it is between 11 and 50 per cent, (refer to Figure 5), while many other metals mostly end up in landfills (Graedel et al, 2011).


The recycling of metals is complex, requiring several main stages such as collection, sorting, shredding, physical separation, hydrometallurgical treatment, and smelting, and involving numerous companies at different stages. The number of recovered metals and level of recovery significantly depends on the complexity of waste stream mineralogy and the ability of the technology to handle this complexity.

Based on reports from UNEP (UNEP, 2013) and USGS (USGS, 2014), we estimated that the annual waste metal generation level in Australia could account for 50-60 per cent of the current consumption (taking into account the average period of metal use within the economy, metal consumption and population growth over the last few decades). Using our estimated current consumption of 520 kg per person, this results in about 300 kg per person or seven million tonnes in total for metals in waste streams per year based on the Australian population of 23 million (ABS, 2014).


The estimated potential of metals from waste in Australia is of the order of AUD $2 billion a year, comprising the value lost with landfilled metals and lost opportunities in domestic processing of collected metal scrap (Figure 6). Currently, only about half of collected waste metal is processed in Australia. There are no domestic facilities for separation and smelting non-ferrous scrap (apart from any remaining secondary aluminium production) and most of it is shipped to and processed in Asia. The only well-established metal recycling system in the country is for iron and steel scrap, and this is part of the conventional iron smelting technology. Although as part of the Nyrtsar Port Pirie Smelter’s redevelopment, Outotec have agreed to provide the site with their smelting technology, which can take a wider range of raw materials allowing for multi-metal recycling (5AU ABC 2014).

Model of metal flows in Australian economy

Building on the outcomes above, we estimated the flows of metals in to and out of Australia. These results established the current level of metals recycling in the Australian economy, and provided important estimates of the magnitude of scrap metal that is currently being transported overseas, which could potentially be recycled in Australia.

A macro-level model was used to understand the metals flow in the Australian economy, starting with the flow of metal from mineral extraction, through several stages of transformation (such as processing, refining, fabrication, and manufacturing), including product use in the economy (consumption), and ending with product disposal, or recycling of metal for the next cycle.

Based on the results discussed above, a Sankey diagram, presented in Figure 7, was developed.


Key findings from this analysis are that about 300 million tonnes are in-use stocks, predominantly in buildings and infrastructure, and that about 2.5 million tonnes are exported overseas for recycling. As tracking exactly what happens to all scrap metals exported overseas is far from straightforward, it is not possible to confidently state that all exported scrap is returned to useful application and not disposed to landfill. Potentially, Australia could be recycling much of these metals under favourable technology and economic conditions.

There is limited information on the type of metal and metal contained products consumed and scrapped in Australia. While detailed investigations are required for specific metal or commodity cycles in the economy, it is evident that the major part of metals is utilised in buildings and infrastructure (50-70 per cent), and the rest is in vehicles, machinery and consumer products (Golev & Corder, 2014).

Mining expertise in metals recycling

Even though Australia can only make a minor contribution to metals recycling from a global perspective, it can still contribute to smarter technologies and approaches for metals recycling. Well known for it is traditional mining and engineering services expertise, Australia could equally adapt their expertise in the fields to the extraction, recovery and processing of metals from secondary sources. The re-use, recycling and recovery of metals in end-of-life products or industrial waste is an area that Australia is well positioned to have a major influence.

In particular, there is a significant opportunity for Australian firms in the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector to tap into new market opportunities, both in the areas of mining sustainability and in deriving wealth from waste, be it mine-waste or above-ground stocks of resources contained in waste products and infrastructure from cities. Given the potential for the METS Industry Growth Centre to extend the impact from what is already an Australian success story, the chance to bridge mining know-how into sectors from mine waste to recovering metals from electronic waste should be seized. For example, in 2014 worldwide over 40 million tonnes of e-waste was generated, containing approximately AUD $70 billion worth of resources (48 billion EUR) (Baldé et al, 2015).

The work presented in this article has been conducted in the Wealth from Waste Cluster, an Australian initiative to identify viable options to ‘mine’ metals contained in discarded manufactured products and consumer goods or end-of-life products. The key focus of the Cluster is to develop pathways to help Australia expand its resource base to be both a primary and secondary metal producing nation. The Cluster is a three-year research program funded by the CSIRO Flagship Collaboration Fund and partner universities – University of Technology (UTS), Sydney, Australia; Monash University, Melbourne, Australia University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia; Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia; and Yale University, New Haven, USA.

A more detailed analysis of the material presented in this article is available at Golev and Corder (2014). 


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