Issue Date: May 30, 2011
Metals Recycling Falls Short
A United Nations analysis shows that less than one-third of 60 economically important metals are recycled globally at rates of greater than 50%, according to a report released on May 26. More than half of the metals surveyed are recycled at rates of less than 1%.
“Recycling is very important for a resource-efficient economy,” and metals recycling must increase within the next decade to conserve and maintain resources, says Matthias Buchert, who heads the Infrastructure & Enterprises Division of the Institute for Applied Ecology at the European research institution Öko-Institut.
Buchert was part of the group that put together the report, “Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report,” for the UN Environment Program’s International Resource Panel. The panel released another report this month on decoupling economic growth from resource consumption (see page 40).
The goal of the metals recycling report was to document “the amounts of metals that are not recycled and are available to be brought back into the economy by improved recycling rates,” the report’s preface says. “It provides governments and industry the relevant baseline information to make more intelligent and targeted decisions on metals management.”
The report indicates that most lead is recycled. Lead is primarily used in vehicle and industrial batteries. And iron and other components of steel, such as chromium, nickel, and manganese, have recycling rates that are higher than 50%.
In contrast, recycling rates fall below 1% for lithium, used in rechargeable batteries; cerium, used in catalysts; and indium, used in semiconductors and light-emitting diodes.
Part of the reason for the low recycling rates of some metals is that they’re used in products in low concentrations, Buchert notes. For example, collectively, there’s a lot of indium in flat-screen computer monitors worldwide, “but per square meter it’s not so much,” Buchert says. “It’s very often a challenge to get these small but very precious concentrations out of complex waste streams.”
Buchert is hopeful that metal recycling rates will improve substantially in the next decade. One key indicator, he says, is rising prices for rare-earth metals, principally the lanthanides. When metal prices are low, there is less incentive to recycle. As prices go up, recycling becomes more cost-effective, he notes.
The report is available online at unep.org/resourcepanel/publications/recyclingratesofmetals/tabid/56073/default.aspx.
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