Multinational scrap firm European Metal Recycling is breaking new ground in plastics recycling and energy recovery.
Throughout the first half of 2015, much has been said about the tough conditions in the metals recycling industry, led by declining ferrous and nonferrous scrap values and perceived processing overcapacity.
At least one of the industry’s major players, however, privately held European Metal Recycling Ltd. (EMR), headquartered in Warrington, United Kingdom, is fighting against that current by investing in some of the newest technologies the recycling industry has to offer.
Having built its business over the years on metals recycling, EMR’s latest steps have moved beyond those foundations. The international recycling company may prompt others in the recycling industry to consider these new frontiers in the process.
The EMR Group was formed in 1994 by the merger of the U.K. firms Sheppard Group and Coopers Holdings. However, the company’s lineage in the scrap metal recycling industry reaches back to the 1940s, with the opening of the first Sheppard Group scrap yard in Rochdale, England.
EMR, which continues to be owned by members of the Sheppard family, was one of the first companies to enter the auto shredding sector.
The company now has sales of nearly $6.2 billion per year, operating 80-plus sites in the U.S. and roughly 75 sites in the U.K., including nine shredders. EMR also owns approximately 15 facilities in continental Europe. It operates five super-sized shredders in the U.S., says Graeme Carus, business development director for EMR.
The full-service metal recycler handles obsolete consumer goods, construction and demolition materials and scrap from the manufacturing and engineering industries. Carus says the company’s largest auto shredder, located in Liverpool, England, is a 10,000-horsepower system that can process 240 cars per hour.
Carus says the company has grown organically over the years but its main strides have been made through acquisitions. From the late 1980s to the turn of the millennium, he says, EMR worked to build national coverage throughout the U.K. Acquisitions in Europe and the U.S. followed in the subsequent decades.
Today, metal recycling remains a core business for EMR. Carus says EMR recycles roughly 10 million metric tons of ferrous and nonferrous metals annually.
Other company resources necessitated by its metals-heavy background include a well-developed logistics base. EMR has an in-house shipping department and operates five deep-sea ports in the U.S.; four deep-sea and seven short-sea ports in the U.K.; and additional ports in Hamburg, Germany, and in the Netherlands cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
Many of EMR’s facilities are linked by rail or water barge. Carus says this is a distinct benefit in the regions where the company operates, which are net exporters of scrap metal.
In addition to typical metal processing systems, including numerous automobile shredders and large shears, EMR operates wire and cable recycling plants and two refrigerator recycling plants.
Beyond the metal
Some of EMR’s more recent ventures are directed at plastics and traditionally difficult-to-recycle materials.
EMR first began working in plastics recycling and energy recovery 10 years ago, a time when the metals recycling industry was thriving. Carus says the fact that these facilities are coming to fruition as conditions in the metals recycling industry are challenging is particularly timely.
“Our focus has been on some of the nonmetal and residual streams associated with the scrap we handle,” Carus says. Using end-of-life vehicles as an example, he says the 25 percent fraction comprising tires, glass, seating, rubber and plastic has been the focus of the company’s recent innovation. Specifically, he says, EMR has scrutinized its postshredder technologies in two key areas.
“First, we turned our attention to plastic, which is the next biggest fraction in a car after metal,” he says. “We are not plastics specialists, so we looked around to see who was.”
EMR identified MBA Polymers as a market leader in the field. MBA was founded in Richmond, California, but now is based in Nottinghamshire, U.K.
“They had done some very exciting work recycling plastics from waste electronics, and we thought that might have the capability to be adapted to our needs,” Carus says.
“We particularly like MBA’s approach because it was designed to separate out this complicated mixed plastic stream and sort it back into individual, high-quality single polymers, such as polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE) and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene),” he says. Beyond that, Carus adds, the process also can produce different subsets within the polymers based on the material properties present.
“We are able to take these highly engineered plastics that were originally put into the car at considerable expense and put them back into the same high-value recycling applications,” he says. “In so doing, we preserve the properties of the plastic and, importantly, the value.”
EMR formed a joint venture with MBA Polymers in 2008 (when MBA Polymers was still based in the U.S.) called MBA Polymers UK, opening a plastics reprocessing facility in Worksop, England, in 2010. The 60,000-square-foot plant has an annual processing capacity of 60,000 metric tons and processes primarily auto shredder residue from EMR as its feedstock.
Carus says that of the 25 percent of a car that is not metal, plastics comprise roughly one-third.
A second EMR initiative has been finding a solution for the nonrecyclables in its ASR. “Having taken away the metal and the plastic, we set about removing most of the inert material (glass and aggregate) for recycling,” he says. “What remained was essentially a material that could not be recycled further but which had a calorific value similar to coal.”
This being another area that EMR did not consider within its area of expertise, Carus says, it sought a partner in the field. In 2012 EMR partnered with Chinook Sciences, the Cranford, New Jersey-based pyrolysis and gasification technology company, to build a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility in Oldbury, U.K., known as Innovative Environmental Solutions (IES).
The plant will have 200,000 metric tons of processing capacity annually and was in final commissioning as of June 2015. In addition to processing residual nonrecyclables from ASR for energy, it is designed to recover a further 10,000 metric tons of metals. EMR says the plant will generate about 40 megawatts of electricity.
The plant uses Chinook’s RODECS gasification and recycling process to recover remaining recyclables and to convert nonrecyclables into electricity, Carus says.
“[By then] we’ve taken out the metal; we’ve taken out most of the plastic,” he says. “We’ve also removed the glass from the process.” What’s left includes rubber, foam, leather, wood and bits of nonrecyclable plastic. “Everything that’s left is what goes into the IES process.”
Having processes for this combined 25 percent of end-of-life autos, Carus says, saves EMR money. Previously, all that material had to be landfilled. Now, EMR is recovering more metal, recycling more plastics and recovering energy value.
He estimates that with the three processes, EMR is achieving a recycling and recovery rate of around 99 percent for the vehicles it processes while also diverting 500,000 metric tons of material from the landfill. Carus calls this “a remarkable achievement and one that sets a real benchmark for our sector.”
Maintaining an edge
Carus says the European Union’s 95 percent recycling and recovery target for end-of-life vehicles was at least one of the drivers behind forming the partnerships.
Another driver was avoiding disposal costs. “We save a lot of money by recycling rather than sending to landfill,” he says, referring to the U.K. landfill tax of approximately $125 per metric ton.
A third factor in EMR’s recent partnerships is recognizing the value in residual materials and waste. “We finally got to a point where the technology was credible, and you could afford to make a commitment to build those plants out,” Carus says.
Finally, he observes, these partnerships were strategically necessary. “If you can do all of that it helps you to maintain your leadership position as a low-cost service provider, which is fundamental to any business,” Carus says.
Even with EMR’s latest efforts, Carus accepts that the metal recycling business is likely to remain difficult for the time being. But, he says, these new recycling and recovery technologies are providing a significant boost to EMR in challenging times.
“It is important that we carry on doing what we are good at, which is being efficient, controlling costs and continuing to invest in the future of the business to ensure we are well-placed to take advantage when economic conditions improve,” Carus says.
Further, he says, EMR aims not to be the biggest but to bring the best solutions. “We have opportunities to consolidate and expand our core recycling business and scale our technology businesses in renewable energy and the recycling of complex plastics.”
The author is a managing editor of Recycling Today Global Edition and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this article first ran in the July/August edition of Recycling Today Global Edition.