PGMs & recycling

Who recycles PGMs?

Important recylcers by volume of PGMs include the following companies:

  • Heraeus
  • Johnson Matthey
  • Furuya Metals
  • Umicore
  • BASF

With the exemption of Furuya Metals, all companies named above are members of the IPA.

Why are PGMs recycled?

The high value of PGMs leads to them being widely recycled. It also drives the recycling of other metals present in PGM-containing products that might not otherwise be recovered.

Secondary production or recycling plays an important role in lowering the environmental footprint of the global PGM production. With responsible stewardship, PGMs can be recycled over and over again with a minimum to zero loss, resulting in a continual reduction of the environmental load of each successive life cycle. However, without virgin mined platinum group metals, global supply would not meet demand for the multiple industries using PGMs such as automotive, medicine, chemical, and petroleum that reduce emissions or improve life and health. Hence, primary and secondary production are intertwined.

Among secondary resources (recycling), spent automotive catalysts (SACs) play a crucial role because they can deliver more than 40% of European PGM demand. It is estimated that between one third to one quarter of total PGM demand globally can currently be met by recycling. Note that this is only considering net demand, i.e. for ‘new’ metal to be sourced from the market. A large amount of PGM is routinely recycled in ‘closed loop’ within applications, meaning that a much higher proportion of gross demand is met by recycling.

The technical recyclability of PGMs is very high, so refining recovery can approach 100% in an efficient, optimised and targeted process. Where recycling rates are low this is usually because of material losses in collection, or because metal is lost in use, so it is not recoverable. Collection losses for PGM can be high, and are estimated to be as much as 30% for PGM on SACs (global average – this will be higher in regions with mature recycling networks such as Europe).

The PGM industry itself repeatedly recycles PGMs from their applications with recovery efficiencies of up to 95%. It collaborates with other stakeholders to increase recycling rates. Targeting the weakest link in the recycling chain provides the best opportunity for improving the recycling rate of PGMs, which in turn can help reduce the overall environmental impact of the PGM supply.

How can recycling rates be improved?

The main driver for recycling, besides of the value of the metal, is the lower environmental footprint of a recycled ounce in comparison to a virgin (mined) ounce. With autocatalysts still representing the major single demand application for platinum, palladium, and rhodium, a considerable amount of secondary material is currently “on the road” and is ready to be recycled (“urban mining”) after the vehicles reach the end of their lifetime, which is usually after 15-18 years. Recycling can hence be improved by ensuring that as many spent autocatalysts as possible are made available for professional recycling at the end of the vehicles’ lifetime.

Therefore, for regulators concerned with improving recycling recoveries for PGM, the focus should be on regulatory measures and incentives that improve the collection of PGM-containing equipment at end-of-life. In some applications, funding for R&D to reduce losses in use could also be helpful. Once material is collected, then it can enter the existing infrastructure that is in place for PGM recycling, and it can be refined it existing PGM secondary facilities.

Where are PGMs recylced?

Depending on the application, most PGMs are recoverable through the product lifecycle, from production scrap through to end-of-life materials.

PGMs are reused in two ways:

  1. Open loop recycling: when the original purchaser of the metal does not retain control over the PGM, the metal is available to the market again once recovered. The main source of open-loop metal is automotive catalytic converters, which are widely recovered from scrapped vehicles and recycled to recover the contained platinum, palladium or rhodium contained. Some metal is also recovered from the jewellery and electronics markets.
  2. Closed loop recycling: refers to the situation where the metal remains within the application, e.g., when metal is recovered from used chemical catalysts and is used to produce fresh catalysts to replace the spent charge. While this metal is processed by PGM refiners, the equivalent amount of metal is usually returned to the original owner, who retains the metal value. As the net amount of metal in use has not changed, this returned metal is not counted towards market supply. Re-using metal in such way avoids the need for virgin mined metal, thereby contributing to make demand more sustainable.