Strategically important metals - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by The Minor Metals Trade Association (SIM 20)


The Minor Metals Trade Association (MMTA) was established in 1973 and is the leading international business organisation promoting the minor metals, ferro-alloys and rare earth elements industry as a whole. Today the MMTA is the world's largest industry body dedicated to these strategically important metals.

The MMTA is dedicated to enhancing membership value and promoting the use of and trade in the metals its members are involved in. At the heart of the MMTA are its Members: producers, consumers, traders, warehouses & forwarders, samplers & assayers and financial, information and legal services, all of whom have an important part to play in the smooth running of the minor metal industry. We have 150 member companies in 30 countries and our industry has a collective annual worth of more than 10 billion dollars.

1.  Is there a global shortfall in the supply and availability of strategically important metals essential to the production of advanced technology in the UK?

Those strategically important metals that have historically been called "minor" metals are reaching maturity; industrially, economically and politically. The UK is one of the world's leaders of advanced technologies that consume these elements.

Strategically important metals (minor metals) are often by-products of base metals (such as copper, aluminium and zinc) and therefore their production is not as responsive to changes in price which is the normal way for market conditions to reflect supply and demand of commodities.

In Europe at present, whilst on the one hand the EU are looking to promote strategic raw materials in REACH they are simultaneously creating de facto import tariffs which are destroying the industry for strategic raw materials in Europe. REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances] legislation adds bureaucratic costs to every strategically important metal produced or imported into Europe in quantities of over one tonne per year. REACH, unintentionally, has been a highly destructive regulation and it is not even fully implemented yet.

2.  How vulnerable is the UK to a potential decline or restriction in the supply of strategically important metals? What should the Government be doing to safeguard against this and to ensure supplies are produced ethically?

Barring force majeure it seems unlikely that production of these metals will decline on a global scale given overall growth in mining and mining investment of recent years. There are a small number of metals whose use is being phased out, such as mercury and cadmium, as they can be highly toxic in uncontrolled environments.

Restrictions for political reasons are matters for the UK government to ease through diplomacy. Particular attention should be given to those elements with a high Herfindahl Hirshman Index (HHI), for example gallium, germanium and antimony.

3.  How desirable, easy and cost-effective is it to recover and recycle metals from discarded products? How can this be encouraged? Where recycling currently takes place, what arrangements need to be in place to ensure it is done cost-effectively, safely and ethically?

It is highly desirable to obtain the maximum possible benefit from the potential to recycle minor metals. Secondary production of minor metals from recycling ('urban mining') is a major growth area for MMTA members, despite the fact that many minor metals are consumed in dissipative uses and cannot be recovered.

Recycling could be assisted through streamlining WEEE regulations and orientating them to be supportive of the industry, especially keeping in mind the REACH regulations which cover the finished goods.

4.  Are there substitutes for those metals that are in decline in technological products manufactured in the UK? How can these substitutes be more widely applied?

Many minor metals are employed for their elemental properties (for example rhenium allows jet engines to burn at higher temperatures) which are very difficult to find in substitutes. There are some applications where you'd be hard-pressed to find substitutes, for example certain uses of cobalt where there are particular characteristics that, to some degree, are irreplaceable without sacrificing performance qualities of the end product. On the other hand, the picture is constantly changing with new technological advances and whilst cobalt's participation in the mobile power business at one stage was viewed as irreplaceable, today there are alternatives.

When considering the use of substitutes it would be negligent not to include due diligence analysis of whether those substitute components have similar sourcing and ethical problems to the materials they replace.

5.  What opportunities are there to work internationally on the challenge of recovering, recycling and substituting strategically important metals?

International standards on the movement and disposal of recycling feedstock would help create a level playing field for European and UK industry. Attention should be given to alleviating the unintended negative impact that REACH legislation is having on UK industry.

This inquiry is a step in the right direction for the UK government, both in terms of raising its own awareness and in building bridges with industry. However, there is still a long way to go if the UK wants to become the global leader in the secondary production of minor metals.

The Minor Metals Trade Association

26 January 2011

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Prepared 17 May 2011