From trash to treasure: Recovering and giving new life to metal scraps

In 2009, Mr Frank Chen bootstrapped $100,000 from his savings, family and friends, and left his comfortable corporate job to start a business dealing with trash.

Today, that capital has long been repaid. In 2021, Mr Chen’s BR Metals earned US$300 million (S$412 million) in revenue and in November this year, it topped the Enterprise 50 Awards which recognise the 50 most enterprising local privately-held companies that have contributed to the economic development of Singapore.

The success of the company is driven by its founder’s conviction in giving back to the environment and society.

His first introduction to the mining industry during a business trip to Jinchuan in Gansu province in China proved to be a seminal point in his life.

“I witnessed first-hand how social injustice and sustained environmental abuse blighted lives, communities and the environment,” says Mr Chen, referring to the mining of platinum group metals (PGM) from underground or open-cut mines.

PGMs such as platinum, palladium and rhodium are used by the auto industry to make catalytic converters that change toxic gases in exhaust emissions into steam and other non-toxic gases. More than 60 per cent of the PGM global supply is used to manufacture catalytic converters for internal combustion engine vehicles.

As the demand for auto vehicles grows, companies are incentivised to increase mining activities and exploit more sites. As a result, many communities are displaced and their environments damaged by pollution – highly toxic acid from mines and chemical agents used in the mining process are carried through surface drainage and groundwater, deposited in streams and lakes and eventually polluting local water sources. PGMs are also a non-renewable resource, thus making PGM mining itself an unsustainable practice.

Mr Chen spotted a sustainable business opportunity in the extraction of PGMs from discarded catalytic converters. These precious metals would then be resold to partner refineries in Japan and Korea, and subsequently reintroduced into the global supply chain, offering a sustainable alternative to open earth mining.

Recycle your gold and platinum group metals

Apart from being embedded in auto catalytic converters, PGMs are also found in spent electronic parts like computer chips as well as manufacturing wastes like thermocouple wires, fiberglass coating, aviation parts and plating solutions, to name a few. 

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