Roundtable urges industry shift towards responsible metals recycling

At the 2024 OECD Forum on Responsible Mineral Supply Chains, the Roundtable on the Responsible Recycling of Metals (RRRM) has released recommendations towards improved environmental, social and governance (ESG) management of recycled metal content. It shows current approaches to due diligence are insufficient, and demands industry and policy action to make metals recycling value chains more responsible. As member of the RRRM Steering Group, and Convenor of the ISO 59014 Standard on Secondary Materials, the World Resources Forum embraces the recommendations and joins the call for urgent, collaborative action to improve industry performance.

The results of the 18-month multi-stakeholder process, which has brought together metals recyclers, industry associations, voluntary sustainability standard setters, certification bodies, academics, NGO’s, and refiners show that current approaches are insufficient to ensure recycled metals do not harm people or the environment.

Often viewed as benign, metals recycling impacts are underestimated and under-reported. Over 20 million people are at risk from subsistence and informal waste collection globally, with many vulnerable people, operating in poor working conditions, handling hazardous materials to extract valuable critical and strategic metals needed for the energy transition. 

Challenges

A range of economic, regulatory and operational issues must be addressed to promote sustainable practices in the industry. Some of the key challenges include:

  • Economic value: the value of constituent materials in end-of-life products is often not high enough to incentivise companies to set up recycling systems, leading to significant value loss.
  • Export of lower value and hazardous waste: exporting lower value and hazardous waste streams to less regulated markets can exacerbate environmental and social impacts.
  • Lack of guidance: while there is increasing demand for recycled content to secure supply for the energy transition, there is little guidance provided on how to achieve this, posing a challenge for the industry. 
  • Inadequate standards and tools: the current range of voluntary standards, tools, policy, and guidance is not sufficient to support the industry in meeting the demands for responsible metals recycling.

Recommendations

Addressing issues like labour rights, human rights, biodiversity and ethical business practices is essential for fostering sustainability in the recycling sector. Due diligence legislation and voluntary approaches are proposed as solutions. However, they need expanding to include recycled content, as well as full ESG scope. They also need to be supported by other methods to improve performance in harder to reach, ‘untraceable’, higher-risk parts of metal recycling value chains. Structural limitations of markets, policy and enforcement mean externalities are not priced into transactions and incentives are not strong enough to improve conditions.

Amongst others, the Roundtable recommends that brands and manufacturers increase transparency of supply chains and product ‘take back’ scheme data, explore service-led business models and utilise design for disassembly. It also recommends policymakers to introduce ‘ultimate producer responsibility’ policy enabling flows of finance to areas of high-risk recycling.

Recommendations for
Brands and Manufacturers
─ Use leverage to support the development and use of enhanced Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) or equivalent standards that include inputs for recycling in scope for a range of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) impacts.

─ Conduct due diligence across the full life cycle, focusing on impact and outcomes, and define traceability boundaries to influence responsible recycling.

─ Utilise design for disassembly to reduce losses and risks, and to maximise system value.
Policy Makers
─ Work to align definitions in relevant legislation and develop a common responsible metals recycling policy.

─ Define and treat metallic bearing products and waste streams as valuable materials for recycling and move towards consistent due diligence legislation internationally.
Markets, Traders, and Financial Stakeholders
─ Implement best practice financial controls on transactions and improve materials identification and tracking.

─ Recognize and accept 'book and claim' Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) credits to scale better practices and create positive impacts.
Recycling Industry
─ Align definitions in legislation and voluntary sustainability schemes to reduce confusion and enable more effective management.

─ Develop new business models, such as metals leasing, and improve recognition of ESG impacts in pricing and contracts to incentivize responsible recycling.
Smelters, Refiners and Metal Producers
─ Act as pinch points in the value chain for collation of ESG information and enhance responsible recycling practices.

─ Implement recommendations for more responsible metal recycling practices to improve performance and drive positive impacts.
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Enhancing Responsible Metals Recycling

The challenges surrounding labor rights, human rights, biodiversity, and ethical business practices underscore the complexity of responsible recycling practices and the importance of informed decision-making. By embracing responsible recycling practices, enhancing transparency, and prioritizing ESG considerations, stakeholders can pave the way for a greener, more ethical future in metals recycling.

As we navigate the transition towards a more sustainable global economy, the Roundtable’s recommendations serve as a roadmap for stakeholders to increase transparency, address unacceptable practices, secure responsible supply chains, and improve ESG performance in the metals recycling sector.

As we increasingly turn to recycled metal content to secure supply, support decarbonisation and circularity, collaboration is key. We must avoid the green halo effect of recycling where impacts are overlooked and develop new responsible business practices to reduce risks to workers and the environment. The Roundtable encourages stakeholders to pick up these recommendations and integrate them into policy and practice.

Dave Knight

RRRM Convenor

The RRRM has highlighted the imperative to address environmental, social, and governance (ESG) risks in the metals recycling industry. Among the comprehensive recommendations for enhancing responsible metals recycling practices, we endorse the emphasis on responsible engagement with subsistence activities often part of the informal sector. Empowering and supporting the formalisation efforts of these stakeholders can boost metal collection and recovery rates, prevent resource loss, and foster a more inclusive and robust recycling environment. Most of the recommendations from the RRRM align well with the work WRF is convening on the ISO Standard 59014 on Secondary Materials, with the ultimate objective of contributing to social equity, environmental justice, and optimal material recovery.

About the RRRM

The Roundtable on the Responsible Recycling of Metals is a multi-stakeholder collaborative 18month process with the objective to take stock of and make recommendations to ensure circular economies can rely on recycled metals that minimise harm to people and the environment.

It serves as a platform for key stakeholders in the metals value chain to collaborate and address challenges in responsible recycling. Through landscaping interviews, research, and mapping assessments of existing standards and legislation, the Roundtable provides a common baseline for discussions and recommendations. The multi-stakeholder membership and engagement process ensure a comprehensive approach to tackling issues in the industry.

Members of the Steering Group include: Mayer Environmental; the London Metal Exchange (LME); The Copper Mark; ResponsibleSteel; the International Copper Association (ICA); Boliden (refiner); Wieland (refiner); the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) – RMI;  the World Resources Forum (WRF); CARES (Constructional steels certification);  South African Research Chair Community of Practice: Waste to Value; the World Gold Council; and the Sustainable Shipping Initiative.

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