Recycling metal is something we may have to become more effective at in society in the near and long term future.
New technology and new electronics are putting more demand on certain types of metals – which is raising the question of how sustainably we might be using and recovering metal resources.
In this guide we look at the present, and potential future of recycling metal.
Summary – Metal Recycling
There’s several factors to consider that could impact the future of producing, using and disposing of metals
There is a lot of data out there that suggests there is a lot of metal that could be recycled and recovered from e waste that currently isn’t being recovered. The value of that metal could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars
When talking about residential waste, there is potential to recycle ferrous metals, aluminum, non ferrous metals, e waste, and other metals
One study indicates ‘Less than one-third of some 60 metals studied have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50 per cent and 34 elements are below 1 per cent recycling’ (resourcepanel.org)
In the US, in terms of millions of tons, iron and steel are recycled the most, followed by aluminium, copper, stainless steel, lead and zinc. Other metals like chrome, brass, bronze, magnesium, and tin
Recycling laptops and mobile phones has the potential to save energy/electricity, and metal
Some types of metal recycling are far more profitable than others (aluminium cans can generally be easy and profitable to recycle)
Some of the key challenges to better recycling of metals apart from inefficiency and cost/profit are social behavior, product design, recycling technologies, and the thermodynamics of separation. There’s also the chemicals used in metal recycling, and waste management
Microfactories that are built specifically to process e waste and products with metal in them could be an option in some places in the future.
Making some products more recycling friendly could be another effective option
How We Are Currently Producing, Using & Disposing Of Metals – The Issue/s
Some potential issues we may run into with metal supply in the future might include:
Proven reserves of some metals may fluctuate in the future
Demand of certain scarce metals could increase in the future – especially with increased demand of new technology and electronics
Supply issues from country to country may become an issue
Mining metals in a profitable way may become an issue
These potential issues and other issues should cause us to examine how we can use metals more sustainably, or find a way to recycle and re-use what we already have mined.
Read more about current metal resources and metal supply in these guides:
- Factors That Can Impact The Supply Of Mined Resources (Metals, Minerals, Fossil Fuels etc.)
- We Might Never Run Out Of Mined Resources (Minerals, Metals, Fossil Fuels etc) – Here’s Why
% Of Metals In Residential Landfill & Recycling
There is a difference between residential, and commercial/industrial waste.
Residential numbers and stats on metal waste are provided by the EPA (from 2015):
- Metal makes up 9.1% of total waste generation
- Metal makes up 9.0% of total waste that gets recycled and composted
- Metals make up 9.5% of total waste that goes to landfill
- Metals make up 8.0% of total waste that gets combusted for energy
Industrial waste numbers could be very different to the residential numbers above though.
Metals In E Waste & Everyday Electronic Products & Technology
The metals in different everyday e waste is substantial. Read more about them in these guides:
- How many precious metals are found in electronics? (edirect.com)
- Did you know your computer contains precious metals? (mayermetals.com)
These guides also mention the quantities of metals, e waste with the most metals, how much more efficient recycling is than iron ore extraction, and what metals different e waste has in them.
Current Recycling Rates Of Different Metals & E Waste (In Residential Waste)
According to the EPA, for residential waste:
- The recycling rate of all materials in appliances, including ferrous metals, was 61.7 percent.
- … the recycling of ferrous metals from durable goods (large and small appliances, furniture, and tires to be 27.8 percent (4.4 million tons) in 2015.
- … the recycling rate for steel cans was 71.3 percent (1.2 million tons) in 2015.
- … the recycling of approximately 380,000 tons of other steel packaging that year, including strapping, crowns and drums. The recycling of ferrous metals included material collected through recycling programs, as well as metal collected at combustion facilities.
- In 2015, the total recycling rate of aluminum containers and packaging, which includes beverage containers, food containers, foil and other aluminum packaging, was 36.4 percent.
- Within this number, the most recycled category of aluminum was beer and soft drink cans, at 54.9 percent (0.7 million tons).
Non Ferrous Metals
- Lead in batteries accounted for approximately 1.5 million tons of [non ferrous metals].
- Recycling of nonferrous metals was approximately 1.5 million tons in 2015, with recycling being due to lead recovered from batteries. In 2015, the estimated amount of recycled battery lead was about 99 percent.
- In 2009, US citizens recycled just 25% of their used TVs and computers, while as little as 8% of mobile phones were recycled.
- Of the 44.7 tonnes of e-waste generated around the world in 2016, only 20 per cent was delivered to appropriate recycling facilities.
- Recycling rates of metals are in many cases far lower than their potential for reuse.
- Less than one-third of some 60 metals studied have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50 per cent and 34 elements are below 1 per cent recycling, yet many of them are crucial to clean technologies such as batteries for hybrid cars to the magnets in wind turbines
- The main metal containing post consumer waste items are cars, electronic appliances and packaging
- Smartphones, flat screen TVs, and USB keys all drive demand for specialty and precious metals
- The United States recycles 150 million metric tons of scrap materials annually, including 85 million tons of iron and steel, 5.5 million tons of aluminum, 1.8 million tons of copper, 2 million tons of stainless steel, 1.2 million tons of lead and 420,000 tons of zinc
- … Other metals such as chrome, brass, bronze, magnesium, and tin are recycled as well.
The Ways In Which Different Metals Are Currently Recycled
Potential For Recycling E Waste Metals
Recycling laptops and phones are two potential areas for better recycling e waste.
- Recycling one million laptops saves the energy equivalent to the electricity used by more than 3,500 US homes in a year.
- For every million cell phones we recycle, 35 thousand pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium can be recovered.
How Profitable Is Recycling Metals?
Some metals and some products containing metal are much more profitable than others.
For example, aluminum cans are far easier and profitable to recycle than some e waste which has small amounts of metal found in different parts of that e waste (which takes time, energy, money and often complexities to recycle).
- … recovering ingots of pure copper and gold from used CRT television sets was 13 times cheaper than obtaining the same metals by mining and processing virgin ore. [when offset by government subsidies and sale of the extracted metals and recycled components]
- [these results could be tested on other e waste and metals]
- [portable microfactories that process specific e waste is one way to help make recycling metals more profitable and economical]
Pros & Cons, & Benefits & Challenges/Disadvantages Of Recycling Metals
- Recycling metal means we are using metal resources more sustainably (metals and minerals are finite)
- Recycling metal means we avoid mining environmental issues like mine tailings, erosion etc.
- Scrap metal industries create jobs and can be profitable
- Recycling saves energy for metals like aluminum, copper and steel
- Recycling certain metals and products that contain metal can be expensive, time consuming and inefficient
- Recycling some metals or metal containing products can use a lot of energy
- Some metals can’t be recycled because of their chemicals composition
– thoughtco.com, sciencing.com, getrevising.co.uk and coggle.it
- Some of the key challenges to better recycling of metals apart from inefficiency and cost/profit are social behavior, product design, recycling technologies, and the thermodynamics of separation.
A good breakdown of the pros and cons of recycling can also be found at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/337/6095/690.full?sid=675154b0-9563-46f7-8667-4c706be7e467
Potential Solutions For Recycling More Metals
Design products be easier and more efficient to recycle the metal found in them
Make products modular and detachable so parts can be replaced instead of the whole thing
Repair electronic products instead of constantly throwing them out and upgrading to new models
Have specialised e waste micro factories for recycling, or recycling specific products containing metal
- Other areas to focus on for improvement are increased collection rates of discarded products, improved design for recycling, and the enhanced deployment of modern recycling methodology.
14. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-benefits-of-metal-recycling-1204149 – pros and cons of recycling metals