Making money from scrap metal

Growing demand for platinum, palladium and rhodium made Collins Saguru decide to commercialise a metal recycling process he developed while doing his master’s degree in metallurgy and material engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand.

The unique process developed by Saguru entails the recycling of platinum, palladium and rhodium from autocatalytic convertors – devices used to reduce toxic emissions from internal combustion engines.

His process is a game-changer because it allows the recycling of the metals at a much lower temperature than the pyrometallurgical processes that currently dominate the recycling industry, making it far more cost-effective.

Starting his own recycling company, AltMet, made business sense, as recycled platinum group metals contribute a growing share to overall global supply, Saguru explains.

And while South Africa provides more than 70% of primary mined platinum supply, its contribution to overall supply is about 55%, with recycled metals contributing the rest, according to PwC data.

Most of this recycling takes place overseas, Saguru says.

Recycling is not only cheaper, but much more environmentally friendly than mining these metals, Saguru says.

“Just a kilogram of platinum from mining, for example, can produce anything between 20 and 40 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Platinum produced from recycled materials, however, has been found to represent only 1% of the environmental footprint of mined metals.”

His plan is to secure waste metal from various sources, such as scrap junctions and scrap yards, and to then supply the recycled material to existing companies that already have access to the international market.

“It would be futile for a small company like ours to try and compete with the existing industry giants,” Saguru explains.

They are currently involved in confidential negotiations to realise their goal.

Funding growth
AltMet has also been approached by an international company to recycle copper, gold, silver and palladium from their electronic waste.

“Our preliminary tests show that we will be able to use our process to do this, so we are seriously considering the offer,” he says.    

The company’s innovative smelting process led to a nomination to participate in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Innovation Prize competition, which Saguru believes will help to change the company’s fortunes.

“Taking part in the competition was a valuable learning experience, as participants received training and mentoring aimed at developing their business skills. AltMet was one of the four finalists in the competition that won £10 000 (about R178 000 at the time of writing), which is not much, but enough to get us started,” Saguru says.

They would need at least R6m to fully commercialise their process. 

Securing funding has turned into one of the company’s biggest challenges. Saguru explains that he is a Zimbabwean, who moved to SA to do a master’s degree.

“Because I am a foreigner, I do not qualify for probably close to 70% of the start-up funding available to small businesses in SA. It does not matter that my company will create thousands of downstream jobs by breathing new life into the manufacturing and mining sectors.”

AltMet currently has four part-time employees. “The employees are not remunerated for their time, because no money has been realised yet to do so.

They have, however, seen my passion and believe in the potential of the project, so are okay with investing sweat capital to help me realise the initiative,” he says.

Saguru’s goal for the next two years is to refine and patent the recycling process. After that, AltMet wants to construct a processing plant, which would take another 12 to 18 months.

“The goal is to establish a plant in Gauteng. It makes sense to start in SA, as four of the world’s biggest [platinum] mining companies are located here. Once we have found our feet, we will consider expanding into other African countries,” he says.

His greatest inspiration is the Belgium-based company Umicore: “Belgium is not historically known for metal production and yet Umicore has placed itself at the heart of the global metal recycling chain, producing over 17 metal and metal products.

“Africa will have to follow suit. If we keep focusing on just primary mining and do not put efforts into entering the recycling space, we will over the next few decades slowly but progressively lose a significant share of the metal supply chain.”

This article originally appeared in the 5 July edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here or subscribe to our newsletter here.

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