Start-ups & Pioneers in Secondary Value Chain of Raw Materials

As recycling activities intensify, miners will face tougher competition from companies in the secondary-materials markets, especially in metals. Here are some examples from the Startup community who are incorporating CE principles to the Mining industry

The key element of a circular economy is the rational management of raw materials including that of metals, energy, chemicals and industrial raw materials as well as water and biomass. The circular economy aims to boost economic growth without increasing the consumption of resources. As recycling activities intensify, miners will face tougher competition from companies in the secondary-materials markets, especially in metals. For example, the global e-waste recycling market is expected to balloon six-fold by 2050, amplifying supply of recycled metals such as aluminium, copper and gold[1].


The innovative business models that have arisen merit particularly close attention. Especially in Asia, an ecosystem of green start-ups focussed on e-waste recycling is emerging. These market entrants disrupt established processes along the value chain. Several start-ups are launching new solutions to collect end-of-life devices from consumers. For instance, by deploying smart unmanned collection machines or by digitally connecting individuals to licensed pick-up services. Other start-ups are piloting green-leaching technologies to improve the recovery of metal from e-waste while reducing hazardous waste.


Mint Innovation’s “bio-refineries”

Mint Innovation, a New Zealand technology start-up that uses microorganisms to recover metal from waste streams. The technology is unlike anything else in the mining sector, with the company envisioning a “bio-refinery” to recover gold from waste in a two-stage process. First, a traditional leaching process removes base metals such as iron and copper from electronic waste, before a patented acidic compound is applied to the waste, strong enough to dissolve gold that is then absorbed by microbes in the compound. While gold is Mint’s first objective, the technology has uses across the mining industry, with the microbes able to absorb palladium, platinum, and rhodium with minimal chemical alterations. The start-up is also bullish about the scalability of its solution, relying on a business model where local recyclers help collect electronic waste and aid in distributing the recycled materials, potentially enabling the company to build its bio-refineries in any city with significant electronic waste with minimal up-front costs. While the technology needs further development, namely in finding a way to recycle the chemicals used in the gold-absorbing compound, and the start-up is still in search of a financial backer to help realise its lofty ambitions, Mint’s work is an example of innovative and technologically-driven solutions to a sector that is still struggling to clean up its waste management.


Hamburg-based Aurubis is one of the companies leading the charge on the recycling of copper and other metals.

The firm’s largest recycling plant in Lünen, Germany, uses only secondary raw materials as an input to produce high-grade copper cathodes that Aurubis describes as indistinguishable from those that come from primary copper production[2]. Input sources include copper cable scrap, waste electronics such as circuit boards and even industrial residues and slimes, which undergo processing, smelting and refining using the Kayser Recycling System.

Precision Periodic and its Thor Filtration system

Precision Periodic, a company based at the University of Central Florida’s Business Incubator Program[3], was successful in extracting and separating rare earth elements out of both phosphoric acid and the resulting waste using a reusable nano-filtration system called Thor.


Phoenix Tailings and mine waste recycling

Aptly named startup Phoenix Tailings seeks to transform a core concern within the mining sector, the waste materials from mining, into a profitable and sustainable new solution and market[4]. Founded in 2018, Boston-based Phoenix Tailings saw potential untapped value in the waste left behind by the refining of metals and decided to get into the business of mining this mine waste, which could revolutionize the sector if done sustainably and economically.

Intending to leverage this unknown and untapped benefit within the mining sector, the company's services engaged in taking mining and refining waste and treating it as a new ore that can be used by various industries. Using specialized chemical processes, they pull apart individual primary metals that can later be used in everything from cell phones and laptops to automobiles. These metals include titanium, aluminium, iron, silica and more importantly, rare earth metals. The hope is to sustainably create primary metals as well as eliminate hazardous environmental waste, enabling industry-leading manufacturing companies to have access to carbon-free environmental alternatives from metals mined out of industrial waste.


Start-ups in the Indian Waste Recycling and Secondary Value chain Ecosystem

Estimates put the waste generated per day in India at 0.15 million tonnes. Market research company NOVONOUS pegs the waste management market in India at $13.6 billion by 2025[5], with an annual growth rate of 7.17%. Although sustainable waste management is yet to become an organised industry here, entrepreneurs are making moolah from waste.


The Kabaddiwala and doorstep waste management

The Kabadiwala is a doorstep service that helps people sell their household junk, and get paid for it. Over the years, it has expanded its network, shifted strategies, and raised funding. In its current model,[6]The Kabadiwala pays the customer for the scrap it purchases, based on the weight of the material. It then segregates the materials according to the grade, or in level-wise segregation, and provides the scrap to different recycling industries, charging them for it, usually around 15 per cent to 40 per cent margin, depending on the material.

The platform aims to help find and map assets that streamline the collection of post-consumer waste, schedule efficient and cost-effective pickups, and incorporate the segregated waste into the recycling/vendor network.


List of Other relevant Indian Waste management Start-ups in the Circular Economy Ecosystem

About the Author

Utkarsh Akhouri (LinkedIn) is an alumnus of Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur and has over 5 years of experience in the field of Mineral Economics, Governance, Raw Material Security and Circular Economy. He is currently leading a European Mineral Policy Think Tank as its COO and has participated in several inter-governmental projects promoting sustainability in the mining sector.


References

[1] https://mine.nridigital.com/mine_aug19/companies_leading_the_way_in_copper_mining_tech [2] https://www.mining.com/florida-company-successful-at-recovering-ree-from-mine-waste/ [3] https://www.metaltechnews.com/story/2020/05/06/mining-tech/mining-mine-waste-for-technology-metals/225.html [4] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/small-biz/startups/these-startups-are-making-cash-from-trash/articleshow/58666534.cms?from=mdr [5] https://yourstory.com/2019/04/startup-bharat-bhopal-kabadiwala-waste-management

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