Corporate Social Responsibility & Recycling – by Dr Tim Johnson

I have written in previous blogs and articles about the way our modern lifestyles depend so heavily on materials extracted from the Earth and how the flows of these commodities link our world.  However, recent news reports in the UK media have highlighted how some of these metals and minerals are produced under conditions that should give us pause for thought.  Whether it is conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone and Liberia or gold from the Democratic Republic of Congo there are significant questions for Western Societies to ponder. High profile news stories such as the conviction of former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, are of course only the tip of the iceberg and even a small amount of probing on the web quickly reveals many other similar, but less well-reported stories. As a response to concerns about such issues, a new law has been passed in the USA (section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank legislation), which demands that any company that might be using conflict minerals must register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and similar discussions on the tightening of guidelines are going on in Europe.

When added to similar reports from other industries, such as clothing, shoes and consumer electronics, it is not surprising that companies and individuals alike are increasingly taking a more pro-active attitude to finding out where the materials and goods they use come from and how they are produced.  Sadly, such issues are never simple and especially when these mining or manufacturing activities provide the only realistic means of earning an income for a local community.  Indeed, some commentators fear that the very legislation that aims to restrict the ability of corrupt regimes to sell conflict materials may lead to even greater hardship and privation in the affected areas than is caused by the mining itself.

These are difficult questions which we should all consider for ourselves, both as individuals and as organisations. There are many ways we can respond to what are often quite disturbing stories but one thing is clear: it adds a significant moral dimension to the already very strong economic and environmental arguments in favour of sourcing all commodities as locally as possible so that we know under what conditions the materials have been produced.  The UK-based Minerals Industry Research Organisation’s website puts it very well when it asks whether we should be “exporting our environmental damage to other countries” when we have viable sources at environmentally acceptable sites within our own shores. It should be noted in this respect that one positive consequence of the recent rise in commodity prices is that the local production of materials under more socially responsible conditions becomes more economically viable, as evidenced in the UK recently by the welcome return of tin mining activities to South Crofty in Cornwall and the granting of rights to mine for tungsten ore in Devon.

In addition to these more traditional mining activities there is also now a widespread recognition that waste materials are one of the most important potential sources of raw materials within our society. The concept of an ‘urban mine’ has been around for some time now and Tetronics’ plasma resource recovery technology is being used more and more to extract useful materials from what had previously been destined for landfill. For example, a small plasma unit in a light industrial building processing 2,000 tonnes per year of catalytic converters will produce as much platinum, palladium and rhodium as a substantial mine in Africa and hazardous ashes from energy from waste plants can be treated in a plasma unit to produce an inert aggregate for construction and a stream of hydrochloric acid for sale to industry.  At Tetronics we feel that our plasma technology has already made a small contribution to the drive for more sustainable and socially responsible sources of valuable and strategic metals, both in the EU and globally, and we look forward to helping more of our customers achieve this goal for the benefit of all.

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