Rethink of Recycling with Demand for Metals

Over the period of life and living, we humans trash a lot of old items from our homes which are made up of various metals or even alloys. Old and worn out cooking pots, entire cars and trucks which have been totaled in accidents,  toys which the kids have broken, tins of food that we open, old and rusted locks and keys – the list is endless. To make new cars or tins, or even cooking pots, there is an endless growth in the demand for metals.

The growth in demand for metals, which could see needs rise by almost ten times of current levels, calls for a rethink of recycling practices in order to address negative environmental impacts, according to two reports released today by the UNEP-hosted International Resource Panel.

Launched during a high-level dialogue on Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Management of Metals in Berlin, Environmental Risks and Challenges of Anthropogenic Metals Flows and Cycles provides an overview of the environmental challenges of metals and the potential contribution of recycling to mitigate them.

“As populations in emerging economies adopt similar technologies and lifestyles to those currently used in OECD countries, global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world,” said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“A far more sophisticated approach is urgently needed to address the challenges of recycling complex products, which contain a broad variety of interlinked metals and materials,” he added. “Product designers need to ensure that materials such as rare earth metals in products ranging from solar panels and wind turbine magnets to mobile phones can still be recovered easily when they reach the end of their life.”

In the global economy, metals are extremely necessary in order to build the required infrastructure. So naturally, demand never reduces and instead grows steadily especially in developing countries, with rapid industrialization taking place.

Renewable and ‘green’ energy is becoming the need of the hour in order to cut back on fossil fuel consumption. However, the core of renewables is metal and they are more metal intensive than old fashioned fossil fuel.

“An increased share of recycling of metals can be expected to alleviate some of the adverse environmental pressures from the use and production of metals,” said Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Ashok Khosla, Co-Chairs of the IRP, in a joint statement.

“However, increased recycling rates alone will not be sufficient but need to be accompanied by a leveling off of the demand curve for metals.”

The integrated use of metals and their compounds cause local impacts from mining and use 7-8 per cent of the global energy supply. There are also issues related to metal emissions from sources such as fossil fuels and phosphate fertilizer, and the need for a final disposal solution for certain metals where supply has exceeded demand.

When recycled metal is used, research shows that much less energy per kilogram of metal is produced in comparison to metal which has been freshly mined. Plus, recycling metals means there is a decrease in the impact that mining causes to the environment. Recycling also reduces the requirement of low-grade ores, and in the future can reduce the fear of certain precious metals becoming scarce.

Theoretically, metals can be recycled almost indefinitely, thus presenting a valuable opportunity to reduce environmental degradation, energy and water use and contribute to the transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient green economy.

Unfortunately, most products are becoming increasingly complex, which makes it difficult to extract all the metals used to reuse them. A simple example is a mobile phone containing more than 40 elements which include base metals like copper and tin and even precious metals like gold and silver. It becomes virtually impossible to recycle all the metals in the discarded product.

So, in order to remedy this conundrum, a global move must be made from a material–centric approach to a product–centric approach which makes recycling targets possible from specific components at the End of Life (EoL) and develops means to separate and recover the metals easily.

Improving the efficiency of recycling metals in EoL products can help recover more than lose in inefficient recycling methods. Naturally, this would be a massive saving on global scale if the recycling is made more efficient and could work happily towards a more sustainable green economy.

“Our aim must be to beak the raw materials spiral by using materials more consciously,” said German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier. “In Germany, raw materials are already applied much more efficiently than several years ago. But we can achieve even more: By 2020 we want to double raw materials efficiency compared to 1994 levels.”

The potential for recycling is enormous when the amount of electrical and electronic equipment waste being generated is considered. Such waste is estimated at 20 to 50 million tons, or three to seven kilograms per person, each year.

Looking at just Europe, a mindboggling 12 million tons of this variety of waste is generated per year. This according to research will boom to at least four percent on a yearly growth rate which is three times higher than the municipal waste generated.

Sadly, recycling rates in such products are very low which was found in a previous report put out by IRP where one third of the 60 metals found in these products have a recyclable end-of-life (EoL) above 50 percent and 34 elements are difficult to recycle.

The report issued a series of recommendations to attain a workable sustainable metals management system.


This article was first published in 2013 and is currently republished for its importance.

About Marianne De Nazareth
Marianne De Nazareth is a freelance journalist who contributes to The Hindu and The Deccan Chronicle in Bangalore, in addition to a host of magazines and website publications worldwide. In 2007 she upgraded her journalism skills by doing a two year degree called the Erasmus Mundus Masters in Journalism. She now teaches Journalism to Master's degree students at St. Joseph's College.