Despite the obvious benefits to the environment, industry and consumers themselves, metal recycling rates worldwide are discouragingly low, according to a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The “Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report” says that fewer than one third of some 60 metals studied have a recycling rate above 50 per cent and 34 elements are below 1 per cent, yet many of them are crucial to clean technologies such as batteries for hybrid cars and the magnets in wind turbines.
“In spite of significant efforts in a number of countries and regions, many metal recycling rates are discouragingly low, and a ‘recycling society’ appears no more than a distant hope,” it says.
The weak performance is especially frustrating because, unlike some other resources, metals are “inherently recyclable,” the report adds.
Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, said during the report’s launch in Brussels that “in theory, metals can be used over and over again, minimizing the need to mine and process virgin materials and thus saving substantial amounts of energy and water while minimizing environmental degradation.
“Raising levels of recycling worldwide can therefore contribute to a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient Green Economy while assisting to generate ‘green jobs’,” he stated.
The report cites evidence that the era of cheap and easily accessible ores is running out. For example, about three times more material needs to be moved for the same ore extraction than a century ago, with corresponding increases in land disruption, water impacts and energy use.
Among the report’s recommendations is the better design of metal-using products to make disassembly and recycling easier and improved waste management in developing countries. It also encourages people in richer countries to stop squirreling away old phones and chargers that will probably never be used and wind up in a dustbin never to be recycled.
“I am as guilty as anyone here,” says Nick Nuttall, spokesperson for the Nairobi-based UNEP. “Like a squirrel or a magpie, my home and office drawers and cupboards are packed with old mobile phone chargers, USB cables, defunct laptops and the like.
“I somehow imagine that they might come in useful one day – but of course they never do as they have been superseded by the latest model.”