'Urban mining' in South Korea pulls rare battery materials from recycled tech

GUNSAN, South Korea, April 12 (Reuters) - Workers at a rural South Korean factory are busy extracting some of the world's most coveted metals, used in the batteries that power electric cars.

But they're not digging in the ground or refining ore. Instead, they are sorting through a pile of lithium-ion batteries from old mobile phones and laptops.

As China’s aggressive hunt for overseas cobalt and lithium for electric vehicles pushes up prices and causes a global shortage of the key metals, South Korea is increasingly turning to such "urban mining" to recover cobalt, lithium and other scarce metals from electronic waste.

In 2016, the most recent year from which data is available, 19.6 trillion won ($18.38 billion) worth of metals were extracted from recycled materials, meeting roughly 22 percent of the country's total metal demand, according to a report by the Korea Institute of Industrial Technology.

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'Urban mining' in South Korea
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'Urban mining' in South Korea
Employees disassemble old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Old batteries are piled up in a barrel at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Old batteries are stacked at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Employees sort out old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Old batteries used in electronic vehicles are seen at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Old smartphone batteries are seen at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An employee works on piles of old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An employee works on piles of old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An employee holds a recycled copper plate at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Employees pour old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Recycled cobalt sulfate is seen at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An employee sorts out old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An employee sorts out old batteries at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
An employee walks past old batteries stacked at an urban mining plant in Gunsan, South Korea, April 2, 2018. Picture taken on April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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SungEel HiTech is South Korea's largest battery recycler. A decade ago, the company was at a crossroads as plasma TV panels, from which it extracted gold and silver, began to phase out.

Now it is part of a supply chain for some of the world's major battery makers, including Samsung SDI and LG Chem.

Yi Kang-myung, SungEel HiTech's president, said the shortage of mined metals had led his company to boost capacity by threefold this year. It plans to list in 2020.

"We are receiving phone calls from many who are showing interest," Yi said in an interview at the plant.

"Major automobile companies are interested in our products,: he said, without naming the automakers. He added that battery companies and POSCO, a South Korean steelmaker, are interested in getting into the recycling business themselves.

The scarcity is unlikely to abate anytime soon, as China, the world's biggest user of metals, snaps up mineral resources in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chile.

JUMPING DEMAND

SungEel HiTech, based in the southwestern city of Gunsan, can process about 8,000 tonnes per year of spent lithium-ion batteries and metal scraps.

From that, it can produce about 830 tonnes of lithium phosphate, 1,000 tonnes of cobalt metal equivalent and 600 tonnes of nickel.

POSCO processes lithium phosphate from SungEel to produce lithium carbonate for rechargeable battery makers LG and Samsung, according to SungEel and POSCO.

The battery recycler plans to increase its processing capacity to 24,000 tonnes by 2019 and expand further in 2021, including growing its overseas operations, Yi said.

The company, however, is smaller than foreign competitors such as China's Jiangxi Ganfeng Lithium and GEM Co , and Belgium's Umicore SA.

Over the past three years, South Korea's imports of key metals for lithium-ion batteries have jumped, according to data from state-run Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources. In 2017, South Korea imported 3.5 million tonnes of nickel, up 2 percent from 2016. Cobalt imports rose 3.4 percent to 13,972 tonnes from a year ago.

Cobalt prices jumped to average $87,615 a tonne in March, about a four-fold increase from January 2016.

That has led to more long-term supply contracts and investments in developing mines, as well as recycling efforts. Samsung SDI may start its own recycling business, a company spokesman said.

Park Jai-koo, an urban mining expert at Hanyang University in Seoul, said electronic waste recycling can help mitigate high prices and limit reliance on outside sources for rare metals.

"South Korea needs to secure resources but mostly all of them are imported," Park said. "Urban mining is more likely to become a way to go."

RELATED: Beijing's bike waste 

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Beijing's bike waste
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Beijing's bike waste
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. wheels a fixed bicycle past thousands of damaged bicycles in need of repair that were pulled off the streets where they are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China.  The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour.  Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned.  Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. �The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'�. �In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement.  When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness.�The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. �Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. stands amongst a pile of thousands of damaged bicycles in need of repair that were pulled off the streets where they are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese worker from the bike share company Ofo Inc. unloads bicycles collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese mechanic from the bike share company Ofo Inc. chooses a bike to repair as he stands on a pile of bicycles after they were collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese worker from the bike share company Ofo Inc. transports bicycles collected from the streets to a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: The tools of a Chinese worker from the bike share company Ofo Inc. are seen at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: Chinese mechanics from the bike share company Ofo Inc. work on bicycles after they were collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese woman rides with a child on a scooter past piles of damaged bicycles pulled off the streets by bike share company Ofo Inc. at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese worker from bike share company Ofo Inc. brings damaged bicycles collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: Two Chinese women ride bike share bicycles past piles of thousands of damaged bicycles from the bike share company Ofo Inc. that were collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. fixes bicycles that were pulled off the streets where they are kept with thousands of other ones at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese worker from bike share company Ofo Inc. throws a bicycle on top of others where thousands of damaged bicycles pulled off the streets are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. patches an inner tube at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China.  The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour.  Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned.  Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped.  The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'�. �In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement.  When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness.�The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research.  Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. stands amongst a pile of thousands of damaged bicycles in need of repair that were pulled off the streets where they are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China.  The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour.  Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned.  Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped.  The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'�. �In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement.  When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness.�The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research.  Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. leans over a pile of thousands of damaged bicycles that were pulled off the streets where they are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. selects a bike to fix from a pile of thousands of damaged bicycles that were pulled off the streets where they are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese worker from bike share company Ofo Inc. throws a bicycle on top of others where thousands of damaged bicycles pulled off the streets are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China.  The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour.  Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned.  Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped.  The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the �ingdom of Bicycles�  In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement.  When the country� economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness.  The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research.  Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: Damaged bicycles from the bike share company Ofo Inc. are seen after they were collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic works amongst damaged bicycles from the bike share company Ofo Inc. as they are piled up at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: Damaged bicycles from the bike share company Ofo Inc. are seen after they were collected from the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: A Chinese mechanic from bike share company Ofo Inc. is seen next to damaged bicycles pulled off the streets at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China. The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour. Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned. Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'. In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement. When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness. The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 29: Chinese workers walk past a row of repaired bicycles from the bike share company Ofo Inc. at a repair depot for the company on March 29, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China.  The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour.  Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned.  Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped.  The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'�. �In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement.  When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness.�The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research.  Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 30: Damaged bicycles from the bike share company Ofo Inc. that were pulled off the streets are seen piled up where they are kept at a repair depot for the company on March 30, 2017 in Beijing, China. The popularity of bike shares has exploded in the past year with more than two dozen providers now battling for market share in major cities across China.  The bikes are hailed as an efficient, cheap, and environmentally-friendly solution for commuters, where riders unlock the stationless bicycles using a mobile phone app, drop them anywhere for the next user, and spend as little as 1 yuan ($0.15) per hour.  Given the bikes have several users a day - some of them inexperienced riders who swerve into traffic - they are often damaged, vandalized, or abandoned.  Companies like Ofo routinely collect the battered two-wheelers and bring them to a makeshift depot that is part repair shop, part graveyard where they are either salvaged or scrapped. �The bike shares are powering a cycling revival of sorts in a country once known as the 'Kingdom of Bicycles'�. �In the early years of Communist China, most Chinese aspired to own a bicycle as a marker of achievement.  When the country's economic transformation made cars a more valued status symbol, the bicycle - a Chinese cultural icon - was mocked as a sign of backwardness.�The bike share craze is also a boon for manufacturers who are now mass producing over a million bikes a month to meet demand, and the number of shared bike users will reach 50 million in China by the end of the year, according to Beijing-based BigData Research. �Not everyone is cheering the revival though, as municipal officials are drafting new regulations to control the chaotic flood of bicycles on streets and sidewalks.  (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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DIFFERENCE MAKER

About 150 small-and-medium sized companies do urban mining, according to the Korea Urban Mining Association.

At SungEel HiTech, the process is not complex or highly automated. After workers pull batteries from recycled devices, the units are drained of power and then ground into a powder from which individual metals can be separated.

Most of the products that are recycled - 60 to 70 percent - come from the United States and Europe, with the remainder from South Korea.

The recycling companies mainly focus on extracting precious metals like gold and silver. But four, including SungEel HiTech, can directly recover cobalt or produce powders from which rare metals can be extracted.

South Korea's environment ministry changed regulations in January to promote recycling by charging higher prices for waste disposal.

Yum Un-joo, chairman of the Korea Urban Mining Association, said recycled resources, if developed correctly, could be a difference maker for the industry and for his country.

"For South Korea, we don't have an option but if we have recycled resources, that could be our strength," Yum said. ($1 = 1,066.4000 won)

(Reporting By Jane Chung and Ju-min Park; Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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