The recycling of raw materials is a driver of climate protection. Wilo, one of the world’s leading providers of pumps and pump systems, has therefore created not only a sustainable product recycling system but also a returns process in Germany that its customers can use.
Smartphones and EVs, computers and wind turbines. Most of the achievements of the modern world have one thing in common: They contain rare earths. These 17 metals, including neodymium and dysprosium, are among the most coveted raw materials in the world, and are mined almost exclusively in China. Already, however, it’s becoming clear that newly mined supplies of these rare earths will not be enough to cover future needs.
That fact hasn’t escaped Wilo, a Dortmund-based group, which is one of the world’s leading premium suppliers of pumps and pump systems for building services, water management and industrial sectors. “Rare earths are the oil of the 21st century,” says Thomas Fetting, Group Director Analysis, Repair & Recycling. “They’re also found in the permanent-magnet motors used in our pumps and systems. If they aren’t recycled, these rare earths will be lost forever.”
That’s why Wilo has long been systematically recycling used products in its own recycling centre. The product analysis, repair and recycling team takes defective products – those returned via the claims process, for example – and works out the cause of failure and documents it for product development work. They are then repaired or, if necessary, disassembled. Then what? “We check which parts we can re-use for repairs or in new products,” says Fetting. “In the process, we keep about 30,000 components in the circular economy each year.”
Wilo supplies all worn and safety-relevant parts to its recycling partners. They ensure the materials are recycled, by melting or shredding them, for example. The rare earth magnets are an exception. For Wilo, including them with the materials given to its recycling partners is not an option. No recycling process is currently able to separate rare earths from other raw materials. So Wilo’s recycling team manually removes the magnets from the pump motors and checks whether they can be used. If not, Wilo and its recycling partners ensure the rare earths are fed into the circular economy.
But Wilo gets back only a fraction of the pumps it sells in Germany through the claims process – these are an absolute exception. Nevertheless, the market offers major potential. “It’s worthwhile proactively replacing old heat pumps with more efficient models,” says Fetting. “It saves power and money. Every year, the specialist technicians in Germany remove a vast amount of old pumps capable of being recycled. And we want them!”
The legal situation is that decommissioned legacy devices, including pumps, must be
disposed of at certified collection points. Failure to do so can incur fines of up to € 10,000 under
Germany’s Electrical Equipment Act. “Our customers therefore wanted a legally compliant and
environmentally friendly way of getting rid of old pumps without lots of red tape,” says Fetting. Wilo
and its partners evaluated a range of solutions as part of a research project by the German Federal
The result was a process that makes use of Wilo’s three-level sales channels – i.e. one that also includes specialist wholesalers and the specialist technicians. Specifically, Wilo makes two broad options available. Large scale specialist technician operations gather legacy pumps and ask Wilo to collect them; or small-scale specialist technician businesses take old pumps to wholesale firms that are Wilo’s recycling partners, or arrange for them to take the accumulated legacy pumps away with their next new product delivery. In both cases, the old pumps are accepted by the specialist wholesalers and by Wilo at no cost, regardless of make, type, age or condition.