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Metal recycling rates “discouragingly low”, says UN report

Metal recycling rates across the globe are “discouragingly low”, despite significant efforts to increase them, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has concluded.

A status report on the Recycling Rate of Metals found that less than a third (18) of the 60 metals in the periodic table have an end-of-life recycling rate of above 50%. For 34 of the metals, just 1% of end-of-life recycling is undertaken.

This is thought to be because recycling is not cost-effective or because no suitable technology currently exists. Yet many are crucial for clean technologies such as batteries for hybrid cars and magnets in wind turbines.

It is the first time such estimates have been presented for many metals. The report aims to provide knowledge of the current market to ensure the continued existence of the metals – which are a non-renewable resource – to develop a green economy and stimulate informed recycling policies.

Leader of the Global Metal Flows Working Group Dr Thomas Graedel said: “By failing to recycle metals and simply disposing of these kinds of metal, economies are foregoing important environmental benefits and increasing the possibility of shortages. If we do not have these materials readily available at reasonable prices, a lot of modern technology simply cannot happen.”

Research revealed that lead is the most recycled metal, with almost 80% recycling of products that contain lead at the end of their life. The 34 metals that have minimal recycling infrastructure include indium, tellurium, selenium used in solar panels, neodymium and dysprosium for wind turbine magnets, lanthanum and gallium.

Graedel said he did not think immediate shortages of metals was likely, although it is not yet possible to estimate how close industry is to a shortage.

UNEP believes recycling rates are low because of challenges within consumer goods manufacturing and recycling. Industrial goods tend to be better designed for disassembly and there is more awareness of the need for resource efficiency. To increase metals recycling, UNEP recommends design for disassembly, improving recycling infrastructure in developing countries and encouraging consumers to recycle more.

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