Photos courtesy of Metallo Group

Metals production is spread throughout the continent of Europe, but the Flanders region of Belgium can make a strong case for being the epicenter of nonferrous scrap consumption on the continent.

Jurgen van Gorp of the Beerse, Belgium-based Metallo Group says companies such as Metallo, Umicore Precious Metals Refining, Rezinal, Nyrstar and others operate scrap-fed furnaces in Flanders that not only produce significant volumes of nonferrous metal, they also consistently explore new technology.

Van Gorp, an account manager responsible for raw materials and business development for Metallo Group and a Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) board member, says these firms, along with technology-focused recyclers who serve them, such as Galloo NV, have helped to create what he calls the Flanders Metal Valley. The geographic region may not quite rival Silicon Valley in terms of venture capital, but it is fostering enough innovation to deserve some attention.

A gathering of innovators

Van Gorp says companies in the Flanders region “embedded creativity and innovation in our way of doing things in order to compete with the rest of the world [and] to stay ahead of the game.” He says this is true not only in metals recycling and production, but it also is a factor in why Belgian beer is world renowned.

Like its breweries, some of Belgium’s metal producers have deep roots going back decades or even centuries.(Metallo Group celebrates its 100th birthday this year.) It is no surprise Van Gorp considers innovation a priority, as Metallo has for many years dubbed itself “the furnace of innovation.” He readily acknowledges that Metallo is not the only metals innovator in Belgium, crediting several nearby firms with helping to drive the metals sector forward in the nation.

Thierry van Kerckhoven, global sales manager of recyclables at Umicore in Brussels, says that firm has roots that trace back to 1805. Metallo originated in 1919, Galloo in 1939, and the Belgian operations of zinc recycler Rezinal were started comparatively recently in 1975.

The metals companies in Flanders are supported by Brussels-based Agoria, a technology incubator and business support organization founded in the mid-20th century that is involved in many industry sectors, including nonferrous metals.

Agoria’s head of its Center for Environmental Expertise, Patrick van den Bossche, says in Flanders the longevity of metals companies leads to innovation rather than blocking it. Over the decades, “our companies have acquired in-depth knowledge of the metallurgic processes, including recycling processes of nonferrous metals,” he says. “This know-how is very often translated into the development of internal recycling technology and, more importantly, the ownership of processes and technology that makes our companies highly efficient in recycling.”

Van den Bossche says this positioned Belgium’s producers to be ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability, as did Belgium’s early adoption of strict environmental regulations, which eventually took hold in much of the rest of the world.

Dieter Stulens, commercial director of Rezinal, points to the same factors in the recycling and metallurgy success of Flanders, including its status as a “historical metallurgical knowledge center with continuous innovation, research and development.”

That history, says Stulens, has led to “a high productivity level thanks to highly qualified workers with extensive knowledge of [several] languages.” With those factors in place, Flanders can consider itself a “trendsetter in sustainable recycling,” he concludes.

Van Kerckhoven also points to Belgium’s geography as a factor. “Being a small country with hardly any of [its] own natural resources, we are very conscious that secondary materials streams should not be wasted or landfilled but have to be recycled,” he says.

Also tying into geography, van Kerckhoven adds, “Belgium is in the heart of Europe, close to major production and consumption centers, which means that a strong supply of materials, and then a demand for metals, is available. The port of Antwerp, one of the major ports in Europe, is also a good gateway to source material from all over the world.”

Albrecht Vanhoutte, a commercial engineer with Galloo, also addresses Belgium’s transportation hub aspects. “Our [Menen, Belgium] yard is 250 kilometers (155 miles) from Paris, Amsterdam, London and Düsseldorf, Germany. Belgium is a well-organized but small country with two of Europe’s most important container terminals: Antwerp and Zeebrugge, nearby our main yards. The proximity of the container terminals makes importing zorba (shredded mixed metal) from the United States and exporting finished metals easy to organize.”

A to zinc

The circumstances that have fostered innovation in Flanders have led to involvement not in one niche, such as copper, but across a spectrum of nonferrous metals.

Agoria produces a customized periodic table of the elements that highlights which ones can be recycled by its member companies, and the roster includes some 17 metallic elements, ranging from aluminum and copper to tantalum and indium. (Van den Bossche says the table is several years old and may need to be updated to include a few others.)

Some companies have branched out into handling several metals, while firms such as Rezinal have remained dedicated to one. The name Rezinal derives from its attention to “recycling zinc and alloys.” Stulens says zinc remains at the heart of Rezinal’s operations, with the company processing zinc-containing residues shipped in from some 35 countries.

Zinc may not have the global volume heft of aluminum or copper, yet the Flanders region has a second zinc recycling specialist in the form of a Belgian facility operated by Switzerland-based Nyrstar. That plant in Balen, Belgium, smelts zinc concentrates as well as secondary zinc materials from around the world that arrive via train after being received at the port of Antwerp. “The Balen smelter is one of the world’s largest zinc smelters in terms of production volume,” Nyrstar states on its website.

Occupying an earlier link in the metals production spectrum is Menen, Belgium-based metals recycler Galloo. That firm has expanded its metals recycling and auto shredding business by pioneering ways to maximize the purity and value of mixed shredded metals and also to extracting value from the plastics fraction of shredded end-of-life vehicles (ELVs).

The company’s horizontal ELV operations include automobile dismantling and depollution (proper draining and handling of fluids and batteries), followed by shredding and considerable research and investment in downstream sorting to divert the maximum volume of material from disposal.

Vanhoutte says Galloo started from “a small collection yard in Menen, Belgium, near the French border.” Now, “Galloo is 680 people strong at 48 different yards, with five shredders, four dense media separators and a [subsidiary] company producing plastic polymers out of ELVs and WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) plastics.” The company is active in Belgium as well as in France and the Netherlands.

From its end, Galloo is working to purify materials before they go to a smelting facility, while conversely companies like Metallo, Umicore and Rezinal strive to harvest metal from residue streams no matter how mixed or impure they may be.

The Umicore Precious Metals Refining business unit at its smelter in Hoboken, Belgium, processes what van Kerckhoven calls “a wide range of complex precious-metal-bearing materials, consisting of industrial byproducts and recycling materials such as electronic scrap, spent automotive catalysts and spent industrial catalysts.”

Once smelted, he says, “Out of these diverse material streams, we are recycling up to 17 different metals, such as gold, silver, palladium, platinum, rhodium, copper and lead. We are doing business with dozens of countries from all over the world.”

The Metallo “furnace of innovation” in Beerse and one in Berango, Spain, melt predominantly low-grade copper-, tin- and lead-bearing scrap and byproducts, including refinery skimmings, drosses, ashes, fines, muds, off-spec materials, refinery chops, heavies, contaminated solids and turnings, meatballs and copper- or tin-clad steel.

The company’s smelting process extracts copper anodes and cathodes, soft and hard lead ingots and highly pure tin ingots from its complex feedstock. Van Gorp says Metallo is “the leading producer of pure tin in Europe, which is all ‘low lead’ (less than 100 parts per million) and London Metal Exchange (LME) registered as ‘M’ brand.”

New considerations

While Belgium does not have the land mass, population size or production capacity of China, van Gorp and others say with that nation’s appetite for scrap shrinking, metals recyclers in North America and around the world may benefit from considering the “Belgian” option.

The Chinese government has placed particularly sudden and thorough restrictions on the types of lower grade metallic scrap in which the Flanders region recyclers and smelters specialize.

Van Gorp contends for metals recyclers in North America and beyond, the time is right to explore the capabilities of furnaces and sorting plants in Flanders, with “the [scrap] market being in an imbalance” because of China’s steep drop in scrap purchases.

Umicore’s van Kerckhoven says present conditions could prompt Flanders to play a greater role in the plastics recycling sector as well. “The interest in high-tech jobs with a high added-value aspect is supported by the presence of a large chemical industry in Belgium, with the port of Antwerp region being the second biggest petrochemical cluster in the world, next to Houston,” he says.

Vanhoutte of Galloo indicates the Flanders region possesses additional qualities that will keep it at the forefront in pioneering recycling techniques.

“Flanders carries a strong entrepreneurial and innovative spirit within Europe and the world,” he says. “Together we are finding simple and lean solutions, while entrepreneurs take the lead in action and pushing our know-how and down-to-earth mentality in different markets in the world.”

Van Gorp, who with his colleagues has set up commercial networks around the globe for Metallo Group, agrees. “All of the above, our down-to-earth mentality, high performance and the level of consistency we add to the market, make us blend smoothly with other business cultures and are part of the attraction of our country to the rest of the world.”

The author is senior editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at btaylor@gie.net.