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Metal recycling needs boosting says UNEP report

By Martin Leggett - 26 May 2011 12:30:0 GMT
Metal recycling needs boosting says UNEP report

A focus on maximizing our re-use of metals - one of the few resources that are ''inherently recyclable'' - comes today from the UN's Environment Program (UNEP), with the release of a report highlighting the gap between what we could achieve with metal recycling, and what society has managed so far. Not only would higher recycling rates for metals save firms money, they would help slash energy use - and help eke out those elements that are important to developing a 'green economy.'

The UNEP's International Resource Panel (IRP) put together the report, titled 'Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report', which looked at the rates of re-use of 60 metals. Somewhat depressingly, the authors found that recycling rates were less than 50% for two-thirds of the metals looked at - and less than 1% for 34 of them.

Given that most metals are relatively easy to extract and re-smelt, those low rates are somewhat surprising. The report quotes research that puts the energy efficiency of recycling metals at between two and ten times higher, than for digging metallic ores out of the ground, and then smelting them. With ore mining responsible for 7% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the benefits of raising the rates of recycling are obvious.

Achim Steiner, the Executive Director of UNEP, said ''In theory, metals can be used over and over again, minimizing the need to mine and process virgin materials and thus saving substantial amounts of energy and water while minimizing environmental degradation. Raising levels of recycling world-wide can therefore contribute to a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy while assisting to generate 'green jobs'''

Ironically, it is some of the metals most needed to power the green economy that are currently the worst offenders, in the recycling league table. Indium, used in energy efficient LED lighting; dysprosium and neodymium in wind turbine magnets; selenium and tellurium, found in solar cells; and lanthanum a component of hybrid electric vehicle batteries - all of these have less than 1% recycling rates.

This new report is a follow on from an earlier IRP 'decoupling' report, which looked at the benefits of decoupling economic growth from growing resource use. It showed that the mining of minerals and ores was 27 times greater by the end of the 20th century, compared to its start.

That is an increase in resource use that is much higher than the overall growth in the world economy, over the same time period.

With three times as much rock needing to be moved to hack each tonne of ore from the earth, the era of cheap and plentiful metals is likely drawing to a close. And there are many things that even individuals can to help put matters to rights - starting with the emptying drawers and garages of electronic clutter that will never be used again.

Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for UNEP: ''I am as guilty as anyone here. Like a squirrel or a magpie, my home and office drawers and cupboards are packed with old mobile phone chargers, USB cables, defunct laptops and the like. I somehow imagine that they might come in useful one day-but of course they never do.'' One way of kick-starting rising metal recycling rates would seem to lie in a little domestic de-cluttering.

Image Credit: © Laurentiu Iordache