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Soaring demand for metals calls for rethinking of recycling practices

Raising recycling rates through product-centric approach can mitigate negative environmental impacts.
Apr 25, 2013

Berlin, 24 April 2013 - The growth in demand for metals, which could see needs rise by almost ten times current levels, calls for a rethink of recycling practices in order to address negative environmental impacts, according to two reports released today by the UNEP-hosted International Resource Panel.

Launched during a high-level dialogue on Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Management of Metals in Berlin, Environmental Risks and Challenges of Anthropogenic Metals Flows and Cycles provides an overview of the environmental challenges of metals and the potential contribution of recycling to mitigate them. Metal Recycling - Opportunities, Limits, Infrastructure outlines improvements required to metal recycling systems in the 21st century.

"As populations in emerging economies adopt similar technologies and lifestyles to those currently used in OECD countries, global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world," said UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"A far more sophisticated approach is urgently needed to address the challenges of recycling complex products, which contain a broad variety of interlinked metals and materials," he added. "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."

Metals are an essential part of the global economy as core raw materials for infrastructure. Demand is expected to remain strong in the future: in developing countries because of rapid industrialization, and in developed countries because of modern technologies. While renewable energy technologies-as part of the transition to an inclusive green economy-cut greenhouse gas emissions from metals production, they are likely to increase demand as they are more metal-intensive than fossil-fuel energy sources.

"An increased share of recycling of metals can be expected to alleviate some of the adverse environmental pressures from the use and production of metals," said Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and Ashok Khosla, co-chairs of the IRP, in a joint statement. "However, increased recycling rates alone will not be sufficient but need to be accompanied by a levelling off of the demand curve for metals."

The integrated use of metals and their compounds cause local impacts from mining and use 7-8 per cent of the global energy supply. There are also issues related to metal emissions from sources such as fossil fuels and phosphate fertilizer, and the need for a final disposal solution for certain metals where supply has exceeded demand.

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