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Recycling of ‘specialty metals’ key to boom in clean-tech Sector

Global – Moving the global economy towards environmentally-friendly, clean technologies will increasingly hinge on rapid improvements in the recycling rates of so called “high-tech” specialty metals like lithium, neodymium and gallium.
Such metals, needed to make key components for wind turbines and photovoltaics to the battery packs of hybrid cars, fuel cells and energy efficient lighting systems, exist in nature in relatively small supplies or in discreet geographical locations.

These are among the preliminary findings of a new report entitled Metals Recycling Rates to be issued by the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management hosted by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, the final version of which is to be published later in the year, also underlines the big energy and climate change gains that could be achieved if greater end-of-life recycling rates of more commonly known metals were achieved.

Yet despite concern among the clean tech industry over scarcity and high prices, only around 1% of these crucial high-tech metals are recycled, with the rest discarded and thrown away at the end of a product’s life.

Unless future end-of-life recycling rates are dramatically stepped up these critical, specialty and rare earth metals could become “essentially unavailable for use in modern technology”, warn experts.

Metals such as iron and steel, copper, aluminum, lead and tin enjoy recycling rates of between 25 per cent and 75 per cent globally, with much lower rates in some developing economies.

Boosting those further through better collection systems and recycling infrastructure, especially in developing countries, could save millions if not billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions while also generating potentially significant numbers of green jobs.

This is because recycling metals is between two and ten times more energy efficient than smelting the metals from virgin ores, says the report.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “Urgent action is now clearly needed to sustainably manage the supplies and flows of these specialty metals given their crucial role in the future health, penetration and competitiveness of a modern high-tech, resource-efficient Green Economy”.

“Meanwhile, improving the recycling rates of common, mass-produced metals such as copper and steel could also play an important part in meeting climate change targets and keeping the global temperature rise below 2 degrees C by 2050. There is currently a gap between the ambition of nations and the science amounting to several gigatonnes of CO2. Metals recycling could play a part in helping to bridge that gap,” said Mr Steiner.

Key findings

• The amount of steel per person in the United States is now 11 to 12 tonnes and in China it is 1.5 tonnes

• World-wide stocks of metals in society have grown such that there is enough copper “above ground” equal to 50 kg per person.

• Since 1932, the amount of copper per person in the United States has grown from 73 kg to close to 240 kg now.

• If this pattern is followed by all countries, the amount of copper and other metals in structures and products would be three to nine times today’s levels.

• The lifetime of copper in buildings is 25 to 40 years whereas in PCs and mobile phones, the in-service lifetime of the metal is less than five years

• For many technology or specialist metals like indium and rhodium, more than 80 per cent of all such metals ever extracted from natural resources have been mined in just the past three decades

• Global demand for metals like copper and aluminum has doubled in the past 20 years

• Lack of adequate recycling infrastructure for WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) in most parts of the world causes total losses of copper and other valuable metals like gold, silver and palladium.

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