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UNEP: resources ‘rethink’ required

Global – ‘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,’ insists Achim Steiner, United Nations’ under-secretary-general and executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Citing two new reports from UNEP, he asserts that product designers need to ensure that rare earth metals can be easily recovered at the end-of-life stage.Both reports state that the potential for recycling is ‘enormous’ as countries around the globe generate between 20 and 50 million tonnes of e-scrap per year. In Europe alone, the figure exceeds 12 million tonnes and is expected to grow at a rate of at least 4% annually. Meanwhile, ‘less than one-third of some 60 metals studied have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50% and 34 elements are below 1% recycling’.

Steiner comments: ‘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.’ This consistent growth in demand calls for a ‘rethink’ of current recycling practices.

Increased recycling of metals can be expected to ‘alleviate some of the adverse environmental pressures’ from the use and production of metals, argues Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Ashok Khosla, co-chairs of UNEP’s International Resource Panel. But they underline that increased recycling rates alone will not be sufficient and ‘need to be accompanied by a levelling-off of the demand curve for metals’.

German federal environment minister Peter Altmaier has said: ‘Our aim must be to break the raw materials spiral by using materials more consciously. In Germany, raw materials are already applied much more efficiently than 10 years ago. But we can achieve even more. By 2020, we want to double raw materials efficiency compared to 1994 levels.’

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