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Recycling of Metals Lags, Shortages Loom

Posted By Jeff Moad, May 31, 2011 at 11:25 AM, in Category: Sustainability

Manufacturers are doing a poor job of enabling the recycling of important metals, a trend which, if uncorrected, could lead to shortages of materials that are vital to the production of products such as batteries for hybrid cars and magnets for wind turbines, says a recently-released report from the United Nationsl Environment Programme (UNEP).

The comprehensive report on the extent to which metals are collected, processed, and reused found that more than two-thirds of 60 metals studied have recycling rates below 50%. An 34 metals have recycling rates below 1%.

"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," the report states.

Metals can be used over and over again unless, of course, they end up in landfills or hidden away as discarded cell phones in residential closets. While questions have recently been raised about the efficacy of recycling some types of products) Remanufacturing: Does It Actually Use More Energy, recycling metals is between two and 10 times more energy efficient than smelting metals from virgin ores, the report estimates.

The report stops short of predicting impending shortages of specific metals. But, it says, there is evidence that the era of cheap and easily accessible ores is ending, citing reports that, compared to a century ago, about three times more material must be moved for the same amount of ore extraction.

Lead is the most widely-recycled metal, with 80% of products containing lead being recycled. But less than 1% of products containing lithium and tellurium, for example, are recycled. Lithium is used in batteries, while tellurium is used in steel and solar cells.

The report recommends that manufacturers improve product designs to make disassembly and metal material seperation easier. Industrialized countries should also encourage consumers to recycle products containing important metals. Such products often hibernate in places like drawers and closets, the report says.

Are you concerned about shortages of metals that are critical to your company's products?

What is your company doing to enable and encourage recycling of materials in your products? If your company is active in this area, have you seen or do you expect to see a financial benefit?

Category: Sustainability
Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit


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