A UN report published last week says that too many of the rare metals that are essential for green technologies are locked up in old gadgets we throw away or forget about.

The report, from the United Nations Environment Programme, examined the recycling rates of 60 metals. Globally, 34 of them have recycling rates below 1 per cent, while only 18 have rates above 50 per cent.

Which metals are recycled the most?

  • Nearly 80 per cent of products that contain lead – mainly batteries – are recycled when they reach the end of their useful life.
  • More than half of the iron and other main components of steel and stainless steel, as well as platinum, gold, silver and most other precious metals. But even here there are wide variations with, for example, 70 to 90 per cent of gold in industrial applications recycled versus only 10 to 15 per cent of gold in electronic goods.

Which metals are least recycled (less than one percent)? Specialty metals such as:

  • Indium used in semiconductors, energy efficient light emitting diodes (LEDs), advanced medical imaging and photovoltaics.
  • Tellurium and selenium – which are used in solar cells.
  • Neodymium and dysprosium – which are used for wind turbine magnets.
  • Lanthanum – which is used in hybrid vehicle batteries.
  • Gallium – which is used for LEDs.
  • Lithium, a key component of the batteries in electric – which is also found in cellphone batteries.

These low recycling rates are frustrating because unlike other materials, metals are “inherently recyclable” says the study. “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’,” said Mr. Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary General, UNEP Executive Director.

By some estimates included in the report, recycling metals is between two and 10 times more energy efficient than smelting the metals from virgin ores. Meanwhile extraction alone currently accounts for seven per cent of the world’s energy consumption, with emissions contributing significantly to climate change.

Why are recycling rates for metals so low? There are several issues ranging from privacy concerns associated with selling electronic products that store personal information to the infrastructure available for recycling metals.

Currently, about 70 per cent of the metal sent for recycling gets lost during the process because recycling technologies and collection systems have not kept pace with the ever more complex products created with an increasingly diverse range of metals and alloys.

“More and more products use an ever wider range of components with highly specialized materials with very special properties. Without them, performance would suffer – slower computers, fuzzier medical images, heavier and slower aircraft, for example. Recovering such element is a recycling challenge requiring a far smarter response than at present,” says Thomas Graedel, Prof. of Industrial Ecology, Yale University.

The report is available online at unep.org/resourcepanel/publications/recyclingratesofmetals/tabid/56073/default.aspx.


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