Action needed on strategic metals, report says

Posted on 17 May 2011 by The Manufacturer

The Science and Technology Committee has today published a report on strategically important metals, warning of the negative effect the 'perception of scarcity' of these materials could create.

Reserves of strategic metals, vital to advanced manufacturing, low-carbon technologies and other growing industries, are unlikely to run out over the coming decades. However, the Committee said that the perception of scarcity of certain minerals and metals may lead to increased speculation and volatility in price and supply.

According to the “Strategically important metals” report, Government should provide reliable information on potential resource risks in a coordinated and coherent way.

Supplies to sectors of the UK economy that rely on a wide range of metals at stable prices are a concern. Export quotas on rare earth elements, recently imposed by China, as well as reports of hedge funds buying up significant quantities of strategic metals, could distort the market and the Committee called on the Government to investigate.

The risk of market distortion from national monopolies, the environmental damage caused by waste exports to developing countries and the need for more recycling are also addressed in the document.

On social and environmental impacts, evidence was given to the Committee that the UK exports large quantities of scrap metal and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), often to developing countries. This metal not only is a potential resource for the UK but it is also an example of the UK exporting its environmental problems elsewhere.

Andrew Miller MP, chair of the Committee, said: “The Government is keen to burnish its green credentials but it is unacceptable for the UK to export its environmental problems elsewhere. We urge the Government to engage with the governments of countries importing these materials to encourage higher environmental standards and adequate working practices for those processing the waste.”

The Committee also raised concerns about the illegal export of waste electrical and electronic equipment, which is often labelled as second hand equipment for re-use, and calls for safeguards to be put in place.

Maximising the recovery of materials from end-of-life products is crucial and a ‘cradle to cradle’ approach should be introduced in the UK, said the report. Despite a rate of 90% (by weight) metal recycling in the UK, it is of great concern that some strategic metals are likely to be lost in the 10% not being recycled.

Miller commented: “There is significant potential for the UK to improve its efficiency of metal use, and we heard evidence of effective methods for materials recovery. It is vital that the Government explores these options without delay.”

The report also includes a number of recommendations. They include improving existing legislation to ensure companies implement requirements on reporting non-financial information, and an evaluation by the Government of the potential for introducing similar legislation to that in the US whereby companies are required to produce detailed reports on ‘conflict minerals’ that they use.