Iron-clad ambitions

Features - Cover Story

Metals industry frontrunner European Metal Recycling treads new ground in plastics recycling and energy recovery.

July 6, 2015

During the first half of 2015, much has been said about tough conditions in the recycling business, which include declining ferrous and nonferrous scrap values and processing overcapacity as volumes of recycled commodities have fallen in line with economic activity. Even large, high-profile companies have struggled to perform in this new economic environment.

However, at least one of the industry’s major players, the privately held European Metal Recycling Ltd. (EMR), headquartered in Warrington, U.K., is working to stem that tide by investing in some of the newest technologies the recycling and waste industries have to offer.

Having built its business over the years on metals recycling, the company’s latest steps have moved decisively beyond those foundations. This international recycling company could further frontiers in the recycling industry in the process.

Steeled foundations

Traditionally a metals recycling and shredding powerhouse, the EMR Group was officially 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, U.K. One of the first companies to enter the auto shredding sector, the current company continues to be owned by members of the Sheppard family.

EMR now realises sales of close to £4 billion (US$6.2 billion) per year, operating roughly 75 sites in the U.K., including nine shredders, 80-plus sites in the United States and approximately 15 in continental Europe. The company also operates five megashredders in the United States, 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, U.K., is a 10,000-horsepower system that can recycle 240 cars per hour.

As Carus explains, 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 around the world. In the U.S., the company is handling the high-profile work of recycling the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Constellation at its specialist marine recycling facility, International Shipbreaking Ltd., in Brownsville, Texas. An estimated 60,000 tonnes of metal were recycled from the aircraft carrier. In late summer 2015, the company is due to receive a second retired aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger (which was featured in the movie Top Gun), after a five-months-long tow from Bremerton, Washington. The U.S. Navy reportedly paid the company 1 cent to tow and then dismantle the carrier.

All told, Carus says EMR recycles roughly 10 million tonnes of ferrous and nonferrous metals annually.

Other company resources necessitated by its metals-heavy background include a well-developed logistics base. The company has an in-house shipping department and operates four deep-sea and seven short-sea ports in the U.K., five deep-sea ports in the U.S. and additional ports in Hamburg, Germany, and in the Netherlands cities of Rotterdam and Amsterdam. Many of the company’s facilities are rail or water barge linked, a distinct benefit in the regions where it operates, which are net exporters of scrap metal, Carus points out.

Along with typical metal processing systems, including numerous shredders and large shears, EMR also operates cable granulation plants and two refrigerator recycling plants. Carus says that once incoming material is processed by its plants, the scrap metal recovered is furnace ready and a direct substitute for ore-derived equivalents.

Beyond the metal

Some of EMR’s other recent ventures are directed at what has become a growing and next-generation sector of the industry: plastics and complex nonrecyclable materials.

The company first began working in the areas of 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 at a time when 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% fraction comprising tyres, glass, seating, rubber and plastic has been the focus of the company’s recent innovation. Specifically, he says, EMR has scrutinized its postshredder technologies (PST) 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 plastic specialists, so we looked around to see who was.”

The company identified MBA Polymers, Nottinghamshire, U.K., as a market leader in the field with compelling, economically viable technology.

“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. He refers to the fact that as many as 20 different polymers, with varying properties, are found in end-of-life vehicles.

“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.”

The company formed a joint venture with MBA Polymers in 2008, called MBA Polymers UK, building a plastics reprocessing facility in Worksop, U.K., which began operations in 2010. The 60,000-square-foot (5,575-square-metre) plant has an annual processing capacity of 60,000 tonnes, and processes primarily auto shredder residue from EMR as its feedstock.

Carus says that of the 25% of a car that is not metal, plastic accounts for around one-third. For the material to be processed at MBA, nonplastics have to be removed, he says, requiring additional work on EMR’s part.

A second EMR initiative has been finding a solution for the residual nonrecyclable fraction of its shredded material. “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 which could not be recycled further but which had a calorific value similar to coal.”

This not being EMR’s expertise, he says, the company sought a partner in the field. That turned out to be U.S. pyrolysis and gasification technology company Chinook Sciences, based in Cranford, New Jersey. In 2012 EMR partnered with Chinook Sciences to build a waste-to-energy (WTE) facility in Oldbury, U.K., known as Innovative Environmental Solutions (IES).

The plant has a processing capacity of 200,000 tonnes of material per year and was in final commissioning stages as of June 2015. In addition to processing the residual nonrecyclable fraction for energy, the plant is designed to recover a further 10,000 tonnes of metals. The company reports that when fully operational, the plant should be able to generate about 40 megawatts of electricity.

The facility uses Chinook’s RODECS gasification and recycling process to recover any remaining recyclables and to convert nonrecyclables into electricity, Carus explains.

“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 a process for this combined 25%, Carus says, is saving the company money. Previously all that material had to be landfilled. Now, EMR is recovering more metal, it’s recycling more plastics, and its recovering energy value.

Carus says the partnerships are “highly synergistic.” He explains, “EMR is removing the metal, MBA is recycling the plastic, and IES is dealing with the rest by turning it into electricity, which is exported to the grid. The sum total of all three steps is much greater than any one party could achieve on its own.”

He estimates that with the three processes, EMR is achieving a recycling and recovery rate of around 99% for the vehicles it processes while also diverting 500,000 tonnes of material from the landfill: “a remarkable achievement and one that sets a real benchmark for our sector,” Carus says.

He also says IES is the only U.K. WTE plant processing materials from the metals recycling sector.

Maintaining its edge

Carus acknowledges that the European Union’s 95% recycling and recovery target for end-of-life vehicles by 2015 was at least one of the drivers behind forming the partnerships.

Another driver is avoiding disposal costs. He refers to the U.K. landfill tax of approximately £80 (US$125) per tonne. “We save a lot of money by recycling rather than sending to landfill,” he adds.

A third factor in EMR’s recent partnerships is recognizing the value in remaining material and waste streams.

“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, reaching into these new business areas was strategically the right thing for a company like EMR to do. “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.”

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 these 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,” he says.

Further, Carus 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