13 May 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by UNEP Panel to Launch Reports on Metal Stocks and Recycling

 


Boosting the recycling rates of both everyday and specialty metals — from the cooper used to wire our homes to the lithium needed for battery packs in hybrid cars — would be critical to moving the global economy towards clean, environmentally friendly technologies, experts on United Nations-backed panel said today.


In New York to launch two United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports on metal stocks in society and recycling rates, Thomas Graedel, Professor of Industrial Ecology at Yale University, told reporters at a press conference that one of the phenomena of the modern industrial age was that metal stocks were “above ground” in household items like pots, in structures such as buildings and ships, and in products like computers and cell phones.


“These ‘in use’ supplies of both common and specialty metals represent an extraordinary resource for sustainable development, not only in terms of supplies, but also the opportunity for reducing energy demand while curbing pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mr. Graedel, who is the main author of the UNEP report on Metal Stocks in Society: Scientific Synthesis.


The survey, along with a preliminary report on Metals Recycling Rates, was compiled by the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management, convened by UNEP in 2007.  That report, expected to be finalized and published later in the year, underlined the big energy and climate change gains that could be achieved if greater end-of-life recycling rates of more commonly known metals were achieved.  The reports are the first two of six reports on the stocks and flows of metals.


Mr. Graedel was part of a panel headed by Achim Steiner, UNEP’s Executive Director, which also featured Ashok Khosla, Co-Chair of the International Panel; Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment; and Daniel A. Reifsnyder, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.


For his part, Mr. Steiner said the reports would hopefully change the global outlook regarding metal supplies and recycling in significant ways, especially in the context of the explosion in the production and use of high-end electronic equipment.  Indeed, with recycling rates for common metals like steel at around 50 per cent and key specialty metals at about 1 per cent, mining and production industries needed to change their strategies.


As the world sought more eco-friendly products, those industries might increasingly find themselves in service-provider roles, as they introduced better product design and packaging, as well as collection systems and recycling infrastructure — especially in developing countries — to boost “end-of-life” recycling rates.  He said the modern market had proved it was capable of developing a recycling economy, and one of the key tasks in the twenty-first century was to push that even farther, while managing the supplies, flows and pricing of specialty metals, and bolstering recycling for common mass-produced metals such as copper and steel.


Mr. Graedel noted that the reports examined the life cycles of 62 different metals, virtually all those in the periodic table, divided into four groups.  Only a few metals — iron, platinum, cooper, aluminium — currently had end-of-life recycling rates of 25 to 50 per cent.  Most of the rest, outside of industrial scrap metal, was used only once.  “This is clearly not sustainable,” he said, stressing that, among other reasons, recycling metals was between 2 and 10 times more energy efficient than mining them and smelting them from virgin ores.


Responding to questions, he said recycling data, especially from the developing world, was “pretty poor”, so the reports had shied away from concrete percentages and had focused instead on ranges.  And while those serious data gaps needed to be closed, the research had revealed that there was a lack of recycling infrastructure for electrical and electronic equipment in most parts of the world.  Improving recycling rates of those metals would not only relieve environmental pressures, but might also launch a wave of new, “green” jobs.


As for specialty metals, he gave the example of indium — used for flat screen television panels and semiconductors — to highlight the tough decisions that would have to be made in the near future.  In the 1980s, Intel had used 11 elements in computer chips.  In the 1990s it used 15, and today more than 60.  That increase had, of course, led to more sophisticated equipment, but recycling rates for indium and other specialty metals had not kept up.


Mr. Graedel asked if Intel and other chipmakers were supposed to go back to producing hardware fit for 1982, or keep pushing ahead until key ingredients in their products became so scarce they became essentially unavailable for use in what had become routine technology.  “This should be a warning shot that more research is needed in the area of end-of-life use,” he said, stressing that, while he was certain that supplies of such metals would not run out, the challenges ahead were real.


Mr. Steiner added that product efficiency was key — Governments must structure a marketplace that would take products from design to recycle phase quicker and more efficiently.  Further, enacting regulatory incentives could make it more cost-effective for companies to invest in the lifecycles of the products they sold.  As for carbon emissions, “green” packing design would be critical.


For his part, Mr. Khosla said one of the biggest impacts was in the mines themselves, and it was critical to address tradeoffs between mining and recycling.  Around the world, but especially in developing countries, mines were responsible for huge losses of life, due to blood poisoning or mine collapses, among others.  Extraction industries also often negatively impacted local communities.  So, while it was true that recycling was vital to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, the impact of mining and industrial waste disposal on health, biodiversity and water and land resources must also be addressed.  “These are issues will be blowing up in our faces very soon,” he said.


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