Recycling rare-earth elements
We are beginning to get pretty good about recycling traditional metals (copper and steel) but are only scratching the surface on recycling of high-tech, rare-earth elements, the need for which is growing exponentially. High-tech, energy efficient technologies, such as fuel cells, photovoltaics, wind turbines, battery packs for hybrid cars and LED lighting require metals such as indium, lithium, neodymium, tellurium, selenium, rhodium and gallium, which exist in nature in relatively small supply. Only one percent of these high-tech metals are recycled! Most are thrown away at the end of the products life. Unless end-of-life recycling is vigorously promoted these metals could become extinct or “essentially unavailable for use in modern technology”, warn experts. Strong demand is expected to more than double for some of these metals which have a ‘relatively new demand’ as compared to copper, aluminum and steel. For example, 80 percent of all indium, an element used in production of semiconductors, LED lights, medical imaging, and some solar cell materials, has been extracted over the past 30 years, according to a U.N. report.
This preliminary report released last week from the United Nations Environmental Programme agrees that we recycle an encouraging amount of copper, steel, aluminum and lead, ranging of 25 to 75 percent globally. Recycling the metals is two to ten times more efficient than extracting and smelting them from the ores.
More aggressive recycling is needed to satisfy demand and in the process it can also help reduce greenhouse emissions. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director, said: “..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,”
Since 1932 the amount of extracted copper per person has grown from 73kg to 240 kg in the US (steel is now 12 tons per person in the US!). The demand for aluminum and copper has doubled in the past 20 years.