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Why metals should be recycled, not mined

November 5, 2014

Why metals should be recycled, not mined

There is no denying that the sustainability impacts of the extractive sector are serious ? sometimes even tragic and catastrophic. But they are not without solutions. Technology, which is the source of so much destruction in the mining and metals industry, can also be its saviour.

The most obvious opportunity for the sector is to embrace the circular economy. Many metals can be recycled ? and in some cases, actual recycling rates are already high. For example, 67% of scrap steel, more than 60% of aluminium and 35% of copper (45-50% in the EU) (pdf) is already recycled. Apart from resource savings, there is often also a net energy benefit. Energy accounts for 30% of primary aluminium production costs, but recycling of aluminium scrap uses only 5% of the energy of primary production (pdf).

Recyclability of metals is as important as recycling rates. We need more companies that grow the markets for recycled materials, like Novelis, which announced the commercial availability of the industry’s first independently certified, high-recycled content aluminium (90% minimum) designed specifically for the beverage can market.

The opportunity to increase recycling rates is significant. Today, less than one third of 60 metals analysed have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50% and 34 elements are below 1% (pdf). The irony is that recycling is often far more efficient than mining. For example, a post-consumer automotive catalyst has a concentration of platinum group metals (like platinum, palladium and rhodium) more than 100 times higher than in natural ores. Already, special refining plants are achieving recovery rates of more than 90% from this ‘waste’ (pdf).

This sustainability business case logic has not gone unnoticed. Given the importance of rare earth metals in electronics and renewable technologies, Japan has set aside \42bn (。31m) for the development of rare earth recycling, while Veolia Environmental Services says it plans to extract precious metals such as palladium from road dust in London.

Read more at The Guardian.

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