Designers of products from mobile phones to electric car batteries should make them much easier to recycle to offset the soaring demand for metals, two United Nations reports have recommended.
Products should be made to become “designer minerals” at the end of their lifetimes so they can more simply be broken up and stripped of metals ranging from copper to gold, according to the twin studies reported by Reuters.
Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “Product designers need to ensure that materials such as rare earth metals in products ranging from solar panels and wind turbine magnets to mobile phones can still be recovered easily when they reach the end of their life.”
One of the report authors, Markus Reuter, said designers should consider metal combinations in products when thinking about ease of recycling. For example, platinum can dissolve when mixed into steel in the recycling process.
Steiner said the global need for metal will be three to nine times greater than all the metals currently used, if demand in emerging economies rises to the levels of rich nations. For instance, the total amount of steel in use in the US was an estimated at 11-12 tonnes per person in 2010 compared with 1.5 tonnes in China.
UNEP said that global recycling rates for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) are low. Most of the 20-50 million tonnes of WEEE that arises in a year “ends up dumped or burned, contaminating air, water and soil”.
The reports said that recycling could also save energy because metals use 7-8% of the world’s total energy in their primary production, while recycling takes 10-100 times less energy than mining.