Making Even More Effective Use of Urban Mines
-For the Recycling and Reuse of Metal Resources-

Expanding recycling of E-scrap

Growing momentum expected to increase resource recycling worldwide

Waste substrates from home appliances, computers, smart phones and other electronic devices (E-scrap) contain high concentrations of valuable metals such as gold, silver, copper and palladium. As it is possible to extract valuable metals more efficiently than from natural resources, E-scrap is attracting a great deal of attention as a form of “urban mine”*1 that has no detrimental impact on the environment, as people become more aware of the importance of recycling.
However, only a few of companies in the world have the necessary smelting technology and facilities to recycle resources from E-scrap. At present, some countries are struggling to process the volumes of E-scrap they are producing.
With that in mind, we are actively accepting E-scrap from domestic and overseas sources throughout the Mitsubishi Materials Group. At our Naoshima Smelter & Refinery (Naoshima, Kagawa prefecture) and the Onahama Smelter & Refinery operated by Onahama Smelting & Refining Co., Ltd. (Iwaki, Fukushima prefecture), we use E-scrap as a source of thermal energy, before recovering and recycling valuable metals.
As a result of the WEEE Directive*2 issued in 2002, used home appliances and waste electronic devices are being recovered at an increasing rate the world over, suggesting that volumes of E-scrap are likely to increase in the future. In an effort to make effective use of urban mines, we are planning to increase the amount of E-scrap we accept from overseas sources even further.

  • *1: So-called “urban mines” consist of resources contained in existing electronic devices and other industrial products, the idea being that those resources can be extracted in much the same way as an actual mine.
  • *2: The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive was set out by the EU in order to promote recycling of waste from electronic devices and electrical products.

Recycling E-scrap using the Mitsubishi Process

One of our key strengths is the “Mitsubishi Process,” consisting of unique copper smelting technologies that enable us to achieve industry-leading reductions in environmental impact at our copper smelting plants. This in turn enables us to process E-scrap more efficiently and at a significantly lower cost than other companies. We have also established an exceptionally low environmental impact system that prevents sulfurous gases from leaking out, something that has always been unavoidable with conventional copper manufacturing processes.
Processing capacity for E-scrap depends heavily on technology and facilities at the pre-treatment stages, from weighing through to analysis. In this respect too, we are able to accept and process a wide range of E-scrap, regardless of type, thanks to our unique smelting system, along with the extensive smelting and recycling technologies we have built up over many years within the Mitsubishi Materials Group.

Key features of our E-scrap recycling operations

  1. ① Outstanding processes
    • Stable operations and processing based on the Mitsubishi Process
    • Unrivalled cost competitiveness compared to other companies (pretreatment furnaces + flash smelters)
    • Industry-leading levels of low environmental impact
  2. ② Capacity to process a wide range of materials
    • World-leading processing capacity, able to accept and recover precious metals from any type of E-scrap
    • Able to handle both pyro-metallurgy for items with low gold and silver contents, and hydro-metallurgy for high gold and silver contents (high mix, low volume)
Procedure for accepting and processing E-scrap

Procedure for accepting and processing E-scrap

Procedure for accepting and processing E-scrap

Procedure for accepting and processing E-scrap

Procedure for accepting and processing E-scrap

Achieving results through Group initiatives

The volume of E-scrap that we processed in fiscal 2015 came to more than 80,000 tons, more or less double the total of around 40,000 tons we processed in fiscal 2012. The amount of gold recovered from E-scrap meanwhile came to approximately 4 tons in fiscal 2015, equivalent to roughly 10% of the gold we produced.

Reinforcing recycling operations as priority growth strategy

Rolling out E-scrap recycling operations globally Rolling out E-scrap recycling operations globally

To achieve our vision of becoming the “world's leading business group committed to supporting recycling-oriented society,” as set out in the Mitsubishi Materials Group's long-term management policy, we have made it a priority growth strategy to reinforce recycling operations in the metals sector.
Our long-term vision involves rolling out E-scrap recycling operations globally and expanding our processing capacity, making the most of our Naoshima Smelter & Refinery, the Onahama Smelter & Refinery operated by Onahama Smelting & Refining Co., Ltd. and overseas group company PT Smelting (Indonesia). Our aim is to promote the effective use of metal resources in order to help create a recycling-oriented society, whilst also increasing the profitability of our smelting business.

On the collection side of things, we are currently focusing on strengthening global procurement, acceptance and processing capabilities under our medium-term management plan. In terms of global procurement, we are working to increase volumes collected in Europe, North America and Asia, diversify material supply channels and establish more distributed collection areas. In July 2014, we opened an E-scrap recycling facility at Mitsubishi Materials Corporation in the US. We intend to use this as a foothold in the promising North American market, in order to increase collection volumes and speed up our services.
In terms of reinforcing acceptance and processing capabilities, we introduced a new online system to make appointments to bring in E-scrap in 2014, and have improved the efficiency of our acceptance procedures as a result. At our Naoshima Smelter & Refinery meanwhile, we are working to upgrade acceptance and processing facilities in order to process a world-leading total of approximately 110,000 tons of E-scrap every year.

Establishing a recycling-oriented business model through our globally acclaimed recycling operations

Takao KondoTakao Kondo
General Manager, Recycling Business Department, Metals Company
(currently General Manager, Vancouver Office, Mineral Resources & Recycling Business Unit)

Recycling resources from E-scrap began in the 2000s, following the introduction of the WEEE Directive and the Act on Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances in Japan. Increasing volumes of E-scrap have been produced every year since then.
Our E-scrap recycling business is one of the primary focuses of our Metals Company. We are continuing to rapidly expand collections both at home and overseas, thanks to the overwhelming advantages afforded by the Mitsubishi Process, coupled with our advanced operational expertise.
Our recycling process has been highly acclaimed by environmental authorities and recycling operators the world over, as a result of maximizing recovery of metal content and minimizing environmental impact. We are determined to establish a recycling-oriented business model that makes effective use of resources, as we strive to become the world leader in E-scrap recycling.

(Department and job titles correct at time of comments)


Promoting home appliance recycling operations

Harnessing group strengths to help create a recycling-oriented society

As a diversified materials manufacturer, we have always provided resources and materials that are essential to society. We also make the most of the technology and expertise we have developed through our business as a group to engage in a wide range of recycling operations.
One of the main areas we focus on is recycling home appliances, which we have been undertaking since before the enactment of the Act on Recycling of Specified Kinds of Home Appliances in 2001. We currently operate six plants via five companies nationwide, working in partnership with appliance manufacturers. Our plants accept air conditioners, refrigerators, televisions and washing machines, which are then sorted and crushed so that iron, nonferrous metals such as copper and aluminum, plastics and other resources can be extracted. Some of these materials are then recycled at our nonferrous smelting and cement plants. We also use suitable methods to recover and recycle CFCs, lead and other substances that could be harmful to the environment. We then make the most of our smelting and cement recycling system, to eliminate the need for landfill and contribute to the creation of a recycling-oriented society.
In fiscal 2015, we processed approximately 2.3 million home appliances for recycling at six plants operated by five companies. That equates to roughly 20% of all home appliances disposed of in Japan. The main resources recovered were scrap iron (48,600 tons), scrap copper (6,500 tons), scrap aluminum (2,800 tons) and various plastics (31,600 tons). The reduction in environmental impact can be calculated as outlined in the table below, based on LCA*.

* Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method of analyzing and evaluating the impact that a product has on the environment throughout its life cycle, from obtaining the raw materials through to disposal.

As well as promoting home appliance recycling in Japan, we have also launched initiatives with an eye to rolling out activities overseas. We are gathering information on demand, legislation and other factors relating to home appliance recycling in China, India and Southeast Asia, and are seriously considering developing that into a business. In November 2014, we gave a speech on our home appliance recycling operations at an international conference in Guangzhou (China), enabling us to outline our advanced technologies to a Chinese market that is increasingly interested in recycling home appliances.

Reduction in environmental impact due to recycling home appliances (LCA analysis for FY2015)

If recycling home appliances, so that resources are recovered from used appliances and reused as new materials

(Compared to sending used appliances to landfill and manufacturing new materials from natural resources)

Effect Total
Reduction in CO2 emissions 118,000 tons
Reduction in consumption of natural resources 120,000 tons
Reduction in energy consumption 56,000 tons
Reduction in waste sent to landfill 104,000 tons

The above table does not take into account the impact of recovering CFCs*. Expressed in terms of CO2 emissions, recovering approximately 500 tons of CFCs would equate to a reduction of approximately 1,300,000 tons.

* CFC refrigerants used in air conditionings, refrigerators and washing machines, and CFC insulation materials used in refrigerators

Location of recycling and related facilities

New rare earth metals and solar cell initiatives

We are also working on new recycling initiatives in areas such as rare earth metals and solar cells, making the most of the technologies we have built up through our home appliance recycling operations.
Within the field of rare earth metals, we have been focusing on neodymium magnets used in compressors in high performance energy-saving air conditioners. We have been working to develop recycling technologies for neodymium magnets, which contain rare earth metals such as neodymium and dysprosium, since 2009 and have devised a commercial process capable of efficiently recovering magnets. As neodymium magnets are also used in the drive motors of hybrid vehicles, recovered volumes are expected to increase further in the future.
As solar panels continue to become more widespread, forecasts indicate that they will generate approximately 20,000 tons of waste throughout Japan by the year 2020. Having started to develop recycling technologies in fiscal 2015, our aim is to establish technologies capable of efficiently recovering and recycling aluminum, copper, silver and other metal resources from used products.

Rare Metal Recycling Award for the development and demonstration of neodymium magnet recycling technologies

Panasonic Eco Technology Kanto Co., Ltd., a joint investment between ourselves and Panasonic Corporation, received a 2014 Rare Metal Recycling Award from the Japan Environmental Management Association for Industry (JEMAI), in recognition of its efforts to develop and demonstrate technologies designed to recover neodymium magnets from used air conditioners. Having been working to develop and demonstrate recycling technologies for the recovery of neodymium magnets from air conditioner compressors, with support from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Panasonic Eco Technology Kanto was highly acclaimed for the results it has achieved.


Expanding into vehicle recycling

Harnessing home appliance recycling technology and expertise

Traditionally, vehicle recycling was driven by the scrap iron distribution sector. In recent years however, more and more electrical components have been fitted to vehicles, as part of the transition to hybrid, electric and other types of next generation vehicles. As a result, vehicles have started to use more nonferrous metals, such as copper and aluminum, rare earth metals such as neodymium, and precious metals. Carbon fiber bodies are also becoming a commercial reality in an effort to develop more lightweight vehicles.
Such sweeping structural changes in the auto industry are expected to have a dramatic effect on the composition of the vehicle recycling business in the future.
With this trend in mind, we are harnessing the technology and expertise we have built up through our home appliance recycling operations to expand into vehicle recycling too. In an effort to recycle components and materials that have previously been unrecovered, in June 2014 we got involved in the management of a vehicle recycling company. Since then, we have been establishing facilities and developing a business based on recovering resources from the motors of hybrid vehicles.
We are also working to develop technologies aimed at making effective use of cobalt and nickel contained in lithium ion batteries, as used in next generation vehicles and household storage batteries, which are set to become increasingly popular in the future. Our aim is to establish an integrated processing system from collection through to disposal, taking into account safety in areas such as transport and treatment.

Harnessing internal synergy with advanced technologies to accelerate business expansion

Shogo YamaguchiShogo Yamaguchi
General Manager, Eco-Business Division Mineral Resources & Recycling Business Unit

We have made steady progress with our home appliance recycling business since launching in 2001, and have secured a 20% share of the market by working with appliance manufacturers at our six plants, operated by five companies. We are now looking to apply the advanced technologies we have acquired through this experience to vehicle recycling, in an effort to expand our environmental recycling operations even further.
As well as stepping up cooperation with our Metals Company, we are actively focusing on technical development in areas such as recovering scarce resources and adequately processing difficult-to-treat materials. We are aiming to create a business model that makes the most of our key features as a material manufacturer, so that we can help to create a recycling-oriented society that looks after, recycles and reuses the earth's precious natural resources.