Tin Recycling

Tin can be infinitely recycled to the same high quality due to its intrinsic properties and economic value. Closing metal loops by increasing reuse and recycling has the potential to improve resource productivity while reducing energy use, emissions, and waste disposal.

The availability of secondary and recycled tin is also crucial for the future. Due to tin’s versatility and unique properties, it is used in numerous new technologies. Tin is therefore key to both the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Green Revolution. Recycled tin is already contributing to a greener and more connected planet by fulfilling some of this new demand.

In line with this trend, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) has published a Declaration by the Metals Industry on Recycling Principles. This encourages manufacturers, policymakers, and other decision-makers to evaluate real performance and improve the design and management of products, including their disposal and recycling. Moreover, the IEA’s World Energy Outlook Special Report 2021 recommends scaling up recycling as a key measure to approach mineral security.

Tin recycling today

For tin products, the average recycled content can be quantified as the ‘Recycling Input Rate’ (RIR). This measures the percentage contribution of recycled ‘secondary’ tin, both in refined and unrefined forms. In 2019 the RIR of tin was 30%. Re-refined tin contributed 17% of total tin use, whilst reused or reformulated alloys made up the remaining portion. The RIR has varied between 30-35% over the last decade, with dips generally corresponding to periods of tin price lows.

Manufacturing scraps and residues are commonly recycled, either used in-house or recovered by external scrap processing companies. These tin-containing by-products are recycled back to pure tin ingots or reintegrated into tin alloys or chemicals.

Tin is mainly used in solder, tin chemical, tinplate, and lead-acid battery products. These products are critical to modern life and have wide-ranging lifetimes. Whether tin is recovered from finished products depends on factors such as societal awareness, price variation, and economic and technological feasibility.

Around half of all tin is used in solder each year- mainly for electronics. Some tin is recovered from end-of-life electronics while solder manufacturing by-products are also an important source of recycled tin. 30-40,000 tpa tin is recovered by recycling solder scraps, oxidised tin, and solder dross, some 95% of the total produced.

12% of tin is used to manufacture tinplate food cans and metal packaging. Tin is recovered from electroplating sludge and spent anodes, both of which are by-products of tinplate manufacturing.

Significant volumes of tin are recycled by reprocessing tin alloys. This ‘alloy-to-alloy’ recycling includes lead-acid battery grids, bronzes, and tin-copper products. Tin alloys are reformulated at metal foundries to make new products.

Opportunities for tin recovery

Opportunities remain for increasing tin recovery. Green policy is increasingly encouraging re-use, repair and collection of e-waste and other tin-containing products. New tin recovery technologies are being developed and commercialised to extract the maximum value from collected products.

Discarded electronics

The largest potential source of recycled tin is solder in electronic waste. Tin is concentrated in printed circuit boards (PCBs) which have a tin content of up to 3%. In 2019, the world produced 53.6Mt of e-waste, only 17.4% of which was documented as collected and properly recycled. This collected fraction contained up to 30,000 tonnes of tin, representing a value of nearly US$1bn (June 2021). However, only a small proportion of collected e-waste is currently dismantled to remove PCBs and extract metals. Co-recovery of tin with precious metals and copper may improve the economic feasibility of tin recovery processes, therefore encouraging dismantling and recycling of metals in collected e-waste.

Before tin recovery, it may be beneficial to separate electronic components from PCBs in a technique known as ‘depopulation’. This stage dissolves or melts solder joints to free electronic components from the plastic board. Precious metals remain concentrated in the components, preventing contamination by less valuable materials. Tin can then be recovered using pyrometallurgy or hydrometallurgy technologies, including bioleaching, to produce a useful tin product.

Tinplate

Recovery of tin from tinplate is known as ‘detinning’. This process has operated commercially for decades, extracting tin from production scraps and food cans. In recent years, the tin layer on tinplate has become increasingly thin, making the recovery of tin more economically challenging. A high tin price could encourage and incentivise more detinning operations.

Slags

Metallurgical slags could be a significant source of recycled tin. Slags from the lead industry, for example, may hold around 10-15kg of tin per tonne, totalling 10-20,000 tpa tin.

Alloys

Installation of electric vehicles, vehicle charging points, and renewable energy infrastructures will boost the use of tin-copper and bronze alloys. Solar ribbon, electrical busbars, connectors, and vehicle wiring may therefore become important sources of recycled tin.

Tin Recycling Factsheet

Explore our Tin Recycling Factsheet to see how tin flows between refined tin, tin products, and tin recycling. Also, find estimates for the size of tin recovery opportunities and visualise RIR over time.

For further information please contact [email protected]

Major recycled tin producers include ITA members Metallo (Belgium) and Fenix Metals (Poland).