Less than one percent of 34 rare metals studied in a UN Environmental Program (UNEP) report are recycled. Less than a third of 60 metals studied have end-of-life recycling rates above 50 percent, but less than one percent of 34 rare metals are recycled. Overall recycling rates are “discouragingly low,” according to the report.
Lead, iron, platinum, gold and silver have some of the highest global recycling rates. Almost 80 percent of products with lead, mostly batteries are recycled when they reach the end-of-life. Although 70 to 90 percent of gold in industrial applications is recycled, only 10 to 15 percent of gold in electronic goods are recycled.
“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,” says Achim Steiner, UN under-secretary general and UNEP’s executive director. “Raising levels of recycling worldwide can therefore contribute to a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient green economy while assisting to generate green jobs.”
Ironically, many of the rare metals are needed for clean technologies. Lanthanum is in batteries for hybrid cars. Neodymium and dysprosium are used in wind turbines. Tellurium and selenium are used in high efficiency solar cells. Gallium is in LED lighting systems.
“In spite of significant efforts in a number of countries and regions, many metal recycling rates are discouragingly low, and a ‘recycling society’ appears no more than a distant hope,” states the report. Here’s what needs to happen:
- Encourage product design that makes dis-assembly and material separation easier
- Improve waste management and recycling infrastructure for complex end-of-life products in developing countries and emerging economies
- Improve recycling technologies and collection systems to keep pace with ever more complex products created with an increasingly diverse range of metals and alloys
“We hope this report encourages policy makers and product designers to adopt life cycle thinking when planning for materials recycling,” says John Atherton, Director, International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).
“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, professor of industrial ecology at Yale University, and one of the report’s eight authors.