Unless recycling of special rare metals such as lithium are increased there will not be material available to make clean technologies such as wind turbines, fuel cells and energy efficient lighting systems, a report by the United Nations Environment Programme has found.
The report Metals Recycling Rates, to be published by the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management later this year, found that only one per cent of these metals are recycled. Currently, 99% is thrown away at the end of the product’s life, causing concern among experts that they could become unavailable for us to use in modern technology.
Metals such as lithium, neodymium and gallium are needed to make key components for wind turbines, photovoltaics (which convert solar energy into electricity), the battery packs of hybrid cars, fuel cells and energy efficient lighting systems.
UN under-secretary general and UNEP executive director Achim Steiner said: “Urgent action is now 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.”
Preliminary results in the report found a lack of recycling infrastructure for waste electronic and electrical equipment in most parts of the world causes total losses of copper and other valuable metals like gold, silver and palladium.
Professor of Industrial Ecology at Yale University and chair of the UN’s working group on metals Thomas Graedel added: “One of the phenomena of our modern, industrial age is that increasingly metal stocks are above ground in structures such as buildings and ships and products from cell phones to personal computers…Yet these above ground supplies represent an extraordinary resource for sustainable development not only in terms of supplies but also the opportunity for reducing energy demand while curbing pollution, including rising greenhouse gases.”
The report also found that secondary steel uses 75% less greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to virgin steel, while emissions from recycled aluminium are around 12 times lower than primary aluminium production.