A study on global metals recycling identified feedstock reliability, technology limitations and product design choices as barriers to increasing recycled metal usage.
Meanwhile, the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry is trying to make consumers aware of the coming mineral shortage and urging everyone to focus on e-scrap recycling over mining to produce minerals needed for electronics.
“Green” metals draw interest, but problems remain
A 2022 Mining and Metals survey from global law firm White & Case found that many leaders in the mining and metals industry believe there will be greater emphasis on “green” metal, including recycled metal, in the coming years.
“Although early-stage, this has begun to play out, with industry players seeking to capitalize on the opportunity,” the report said.
The refining and processing of metals is one of the most significant global sources of greenhouse gas emissions, the report said. The aluminum and steel industries are estimated to contribute 2% and 7% of all global CO2 emissions, respectively.
Smelting scrap metal for recycling uses significantly less energy and has lower emissions, the report noted, and domestic recycling is more attractive lately with the global supply chain disruptions.
Right now, about 20% of global metals output is recycled, the report said. For there to be a stable global feedstock, more products will need to be designed for easier metal extraction.
“Despite the narrative of moving toward a circular economy, increasing industrialization and rising standards of living mean that it is not expected that there will be sufficient scrap feedstock alone to satisfy all of the global demand for metals,” the report said.
While “green” metal is attractive, the report warned there are still barriers. It noted that although smelting metal from scrap uses less energy than virgin, it still requires significant amounts of energy. That energy often comes from coal or natural gas. Even switching to electricity, which does not emit greenhouse gases at source, can be unsustainable, the report said.
“While the trend toward electrification is growing, and sources of green energy are increasing, the majority of power available on the grid in most countries continues to be sourced from fossil fuels,” the report said.
And just because metal is recycled does not mean it is ethical, the report warned, as “breaking down products and recovering scrap metal can be labor-intensive, which has traditionally been a driver for waste from industrialized countries being exported to less industrialized countries for sorting and processing.”
“Scrap originating in less industrialized countries also presents its own issues, with scrap metals often retrieved from rubbish dumps by hand, and in some cases by child labor,” the report said. “The process of sorting scrap is also potentially dangerous and environmentally harmful, with hazardous substances leaching into the earth if the process is not properly managed and regulated.”
Governments will play a key role in overcoming obstacles using policies and legislation, the report predicted, and could offer economic incentives, mandate minimum recovery standards or provide financial support for recycling projects.
Critical electronics minerals running out
The Royal Society of Chemistry is running an outreach campaign on the risk of certain critical minerals used in electronics running out this century and emphasizing the need for more recycling.
“We urge everyone to be more conscious about how they use and reuse technology,” Tom Welton, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said in a statement. “Before you dispose of or replace it, ask yourself if it really needs replacing. Could it be repaired or updated? If it can’t be sold or donated, could it be recycled?”
The outreach campaign includes a survey of global opinions on electronics recycling broken down by country and profiles of high-risk elements such as nickel, lithium, cobalt, aluminum and tantalum.
According to the survey, a global average of 56.6% of people said they think manufacturers should be responsible for recycling. The online survey was of 10,000 people in 10 countries.
In an Independent article, Welton said the world’s “tech consumption habits remain highly unsustainable and have left us at risk of exhausting the raw elements we need.”
“It is essential that governments and businesses urgently do more to develop a circular economy which can tackle the world’s growing e-waste crisis and alleviate the strain on supply chains,” he added.
The Royal Society of Chemistry’s research also found that 60% of people said they would be likely to switch to a rival of their preferred technology brand if the rival’s product was made in a sustainable way.
A version of this story appeared in E-Scrap News on June 3.
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