Rare metal smelting workshop in China

Rare earth metals worth millions thrown away in UK each year

Precious and rare metals worth millions are scrapped each year through discarded consumer goods like old mobile phones.

Metals ranging from gold to cobalt and rare earth elements such as neodymium are used in electronic equipment including phones, laptops, headphones, rechargeable batteries and TVs - but are lost when the consumer goods end up in landfill.

It is estimated that between now and 2020, the UK will throw away 12 million tonnes of electronic equipment, a quarter of which will be IT equipment and other goods which contain around 63 tonnes of palladium and 17 tonnes of iridium.

The amount of palladium lost would be worth £1 billion on today's market, while the iridium would be worth £380 million.

Almost a quarter of the consumer goods thrown away could be fixed and resold in their current form, worth a potential £200 million a year.

In a bid to tackle rising consumer demand and an increasing reliance on metals from abroad, the government has launched an action plan to help businesses reuse and recycle the metals in products.

"Businesses are already feeling the heat from uncertainty in the supply of the speciality metals used in mobile phones, medical equipment and aeroplanes," said environment secretary Caroline Spelman.

"We're working with business to help prepare for these risks - but there is also a multibillion-pound opportunity in the massive amount of valuable metals lost because of how we deal now with products people no longer want.

"I want to see British businesses taking advantage of this golden opportunity to boost growth and jobs through how we design products, while re-using, recycling or substituting valuable metals."

China produces 95 per cent of "rare earth metals", and the EU, US and Japan this week took a complaint over the country's export restrictions to the World Trade Organisation.

Unstable countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo produce key materials including cobalt, which is used in phone, laptop and digital camera batteries.

A recent survey by the manufacturers organisation EEF of chief executives found that four fifths believed materials shortages would be a risk to their business this year.

The resource security action plan will provide £200,000 for businesses to come up with new ways of reusing or recycling precious metals and develop a map of where and how metals come in and out of the UK in electrical and electronic goods.

"This plan will help UK businesses to better withstand any changes in both supply and price, make the most of emerging growth opportunities, create high-skilled jobs and compete on the world stage," said business secretary Vince Cable.

It is hoped it will help businesses find new ways of keeping hold of materials, so that they do not go to waste. Currently, for example, of £350 million of gold used each year in the UK, 75 per cent is lost through traditional recycling processes.

The plan will also see a new industry-led consortium assess risks and opportunities for businesses in the UK, and the development of a website with information for companies about the metals they rely on.

"This plan is a step in the right direction but government must now build on this and take a broader view on resources," said EEF's head of climate and environment, Gareth Stace.

"Access to raw materials is a growing issue for manufacturing with one in three firms rating this as their top risk for this year.

"Disruption to supply of key materials is a growing risk to manufacturers and their supply chains with scare materials concentrated in just a few countries and global demand growing rapidly.

"These materials are not widely recycled and not easily substituted with alternatives."

He warned the UK could not afford to sit back while competitors in Germany, the US, Japan and China were ahead in responding to the issue, and called for a strategy to help ensure resource security and create incentives for resource efficiency.

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