This article was written by Trevor Tarring. All views and opinions expressed are strictly his own.
In the past year there has been a disappointing shortage of developments for which one could unequivocally praise US President Donald Trump. So it’s nice to be able to record one.
In an executive order just before Christmas he actively promoted the use of US domestic resources of critical raw materials as a means of reducing US dependence on imports. An illustration, obviously, of his oft-repeated rallying cry “America first!”
Having spent a life studying the international metal trade, and being cognisant of the fact that metals resources are where in the world you find them, you might expect me to be instinctively sceptical about the wisdom or feasibility of this ambition. And on balance, I am. But there is one element of it that is unquestionably a Good Thing.
This is the inclusion of recycling in the list of sources of metals. Recycling, or as we more simply call it the scrap trade, is normally thought to be below the threshold of interest of important people like US Presidents, so it is encouraging to see it being given equal prominence as a source of enhanced domestic metals supply with mine production.
Indeed, if we ponder the relative merits of primary and secondary resources of metals, secondary have one notable advantage – they can respond more quickly. When it can take up to ten years to find, get permission for, finance and exploit crustal resources of metals, the timescale for the results of stimulating recycling is very much shorter.
True, part of the stimulation process will undoubtedly involve taking a hatchet to local regulations, probably fostered by misplaced obsessions with environmental protection, that hamper recyclers in their worthy work. But this too can be more speedily done than persuading Mother Earth to yield up her bounty.
We also need to be realistic about where intensified recycling can actually make a difference. With the belief that electric vehicles are the future go bullish forecasts for lithium and cobalt in particular. Thanks to its presence in alloys also including nickel, cobalt is already recycled to a better than average extent. But with the volume use of lithium so recently stimulated by the electric vehicle story, we’ll have to wait many years before the batteries containing it reach the end of their useful life and create the basis for a lithium recycling industry.
So perhaps the practical effects of highlighting recycling alongside stimulating domestic mine production are not that great? That remains to be seen. But at least we can salute recycling being given equal ranking with increased mine production as a means of increasing US domestic metals supply.
And perhaps now we can consign to the dustbin of history the misplaced omission of recycling from those earlier studies of US metals resources about which I wrote recently - the sixties reports by William Paley and John Boyd.