(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, Andy Home, a columnist for Reuters)
German zinc producer Metallwerk Dinslaken (MWD) has just announced it is closing.
You’d be forgiven for not noticing.
The news didn’t register with the London Metal Exchange (LME) zinc price.
The company is too small with just 41 employees and annual production of 25,000 tonnes, a metallic drop in the 13.5-million-tonne global zinc ocean.
It’s also a secondary processor, converting scrap back into refined metal, and the notoriously opaque recycling sector doesn’t feature much in zinc’s market narrative.
Yet companies such as MWD are supposed to be the beating heart of the European Union’s (EU) newly-unveiled industrial strategy.
The “European Green Deal”, aimed at climate neutrality by 2050, will “need a secure supply of clean and affordable energy and raw materials”. (“A new industrial strategy for Europe”, European Commission, March 20, 2020).
The EU’s revitalised “raw materials initiative” places great emphasis on the role of recycling as a way of reducing reliance on imported metals to feed the region’s manufacturing sector.
None of which is going to help MWD, which is caught between a collapse in scrap collection networks and a collapse in demand for its products.
Covid-19 is taking a rising toll on what remains of Europe’s metal production capacity, particularly in the recycling sector.
We could be seeing a rerun of the global financial crisis, which saw a major migration of the world’s metals smelting capacity to China.
That is not part of European leaders’ vision for the future of their industrial sector.
Europe’s new resource activism is fired by dreams of electric vehicles and battery metals such as lithium, cobalt and nickel.
“We are making significant progress in becoming self-sufficient in the lithium industry,” said European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic after a virtual meeting of the European Battery Alliance.
Four sustainable mining projects are now underway with the goal of meeting 80% of Europe’s lithium needs in the battery sector by 2025, he said. (“The European Battery Alliance to support EU’s post coronavirus recovery,” May 19, 2020).
The Battery Alliance might also want to consider the fate of Recylex’s German operations, which have just been placed under bankruptcy protection.
No conventional vehicle can start without a lead-acid battery. Even most electric vehicles need one for basic start, lighting and software functions.
Lead’s super-high recycling rates make it the sort of circular economy material so prized by the European Union.
However, the Weser-Metall lead smelter in Nordenham has been out of action since March, it too suffering from the double blow of broken scrap supply chains and plummeting demand and prices.
With annual production of around 100,000 tonnes of metal, fed by recycled lead-acid batteries, Nordenham is one of Europe’s last big “urban miners” in the lead sector.
It may yet survive as might the other zinc and lead recycling components of Recylex’ German arm but gone is the French company’s concept of a pan-European integrated supply chain.
In the dash to secure tomorrow’s raw materials, Europe risks losing the metals capacity it already has.
“Shutdowns of European aluminum smelters should be prevented”, according to European Aluminum.
The 80-member alliance of European aluminum companies, in an open letter to the European Commission, warned that “reduced European production will only increase our dependency on primary imports with a significantly higher carbon footprint.” (“Call for a sustainable industrial recovery plan”, May 2020)
Every industrial sector has its own case to plead right now but Europe’s aluminum sector can point out it never recovered from the last financial crisis.
Many smelters closed a decade ago as aluminum prices tumbled. Not all of them made it back and a second wave of low prices over 2011 and 2012 forced another even bigger round of closures.
European aluminum smelters produced 4.6 million tonnes of metal in 2008. Last year the total was just 3.4 million tonnes.
What are often older higher-cost operators have struggled to compete against a new generation of mega smelters in China, the rising star of global aluminum production.
Covid-19 represents another potential body blow with the LME aluminum price currently trading near four year lows below $1,500 per tonne.
Yet aluminum has been identified as a key material for the green economy targeted by Europe’s leaders.
It was found by the World Bank to be both critical for new energy development and a metal that is used across the renewable spectrum of clean energy sources.
It is also highly recyclable.
Can Europe afford to lose more aluminum smelters? If it does, its dependence on imports will only grow.
Back in 2008-2009 the global financial crisis accelerated the hollowing out of Europe’s industrial metals production capacity.
What Europe lost, China gained. Beijing’s massive infrastructure splurge fed the country’s booming metals demand over the early years of the last decade.
That in turn accelerated China’s own strategy of building out its own smelter network.
China was once the world’s largest refined metals buyer. Now, it is now the world’s largest buyer of metal raw materials to feed its massive production capacity.
Some of China’s metals capacity now feeds the rest of the world in semi-manufactured form such as aluminium sheet or as finished products such as lead-acid batteries and air-conditioning units.
Covid-19 has generated just the same toxic combination of weak demand and low prices that hurt European producers ten years ago.
A similar outcome this time around would blow a big hole in Europe’s green and clean industrial revolution before it even starts.
“As world regions begin their recovery from covid-19 at different speeds, there is a real risk that Europe’s import reliance further increases,” according to European metals group Eurometaux, writing in an open May 14 letter to the European Commission.
“Recovering economies like China will have a strong rationale to oversupply global markets or engage in strategic stockpiling while their domestic demand remains at low levels,” it added.
It calls for fair trade conditions, echoing a plank of Europe’s new industrial strategy, which stresses the importance of a “rules-based multilateral trading system”.
Disputes with China over its aluminium and steel production are long-running and unlikely to be miraculously solved any time soon.
Fair trade may have to wait.
The more immediate priority for Europe’s leaders is how to stop coronavirus wrecking a metals supply chain that is core to the continent’s vision of remaining an industrial power-house.
(Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)