Metals Recycling Falls Short

Source: Chemical & Engineering News, Jyllian Kemsleyáá(5/31/11)

"Over 50% of the metals surveyed are recycled at rates of less than 1%."

Chemical & Engineering News, Jyllian Kemsley

metals recycling down

UN 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 10 years 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 Íko-Institut.

Buchert was part of the group that produced 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.

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. . .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%.

Conversely, recycling rates fall below 1% for lithium, cerium and indium. Part of the reason for the low recycling rates of some metals is that they're used in products in low concentrations, Buchert notes. "It's very often a challenge to get these small but very precious concentrations out of complex waste streams, he says."

Buchert hopes metal recycling rates will improve substantially over the next decade. He notes one key indicator is rising rare earth prices, principally the lanthanides. When metal prices are low, there is less incentive to recycle.

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