Many of the metals that are relied on for daily conveniences are approaching a state of scarcity. A 2020 study published by the Journal of Resources, Conservation and Recycling found that there would be major scarcity in several crucial manufacturing elements without major alterations to the extraction and recycling process. Crucially, it highlighted how change is required at all levels in order to avoid this scarcity while also improving the plight of global ecosystems in the process. Doing so will help to preserve conveniences for all, with recycling at the forefront.
A Consumer Harvest
The start of the process of rare metal recycling begins in the home. There is such a huge abundance of rare metals in the average home; the BBC estimate that a tonne of smartphones and similar electronics will yield more gold than a tonne of ore, for instance. This yield can have huge benefits for two reasons. According to experts in metal recycling in Austin, Texas, recycling home goods is both an environmentally and economically beneficial process. Good money can be made from recycling home goods even when in a broken state, and those rare earth and precious metals that have been used to create the technology can be immediately put back into the supply chain minimum fuss. This is especially beneficial as the process of using recycled metals is far less costly to the environment than fresh extraction.
Rare earth and precious metals come from deposits that have a high turnover rate of ore. According to Ars Technica, a recovery rate from older extraction heaps is already being considered in every mining-heavy country bar China. However, looking towards recycling could be more fruitful. Current recovery rates from electronic devices sits at 20 to 40 percent, and experts think it could be much higher. While extraction from electronics means using solvents and chemicals that are rightly considered harmful, the net gain is beneficial against the huge amounts of energy and waste produced by companies working on deposits in the likes of Australia, China and Canada.
A World Without Metals?
Of course, the best way to avoid metal scarcity is to avoid metals altogether. This is increasingly looking to be the technological pursuit of tech companies, and already it’s having a big impact on current metal markets and the process of their extraction. A great example of this is palladium.
A by-product of nickel and platinum mining, palladium has a key role to play in the catalytic converts that hybrid vehicles rely on. As hybrid vehicles spread in use, so did the requirement for palladium, making it a key mineral. The fact that it is so expensive to extract, requiring huge amounts of waste nickel and ore according to The Washington Post, makes it prime territory for the recycling and re-purposing scene. However, as fully electric vehicles become more commonplace and production turns to the likes of lithium – inherently easier to extract – the role of palladium in global metal markets is going to continue to reduce. This line of thinking applies to many technological innovations – essentially, the need for metals is reducing as clean, synthetic materials take more and more of a role in new smart tech.
Where does this lead in the scarcity argument? The problem is very real; a holistic review by Science Direct noted that 17 of the world’s most scarce metals could face total exhaustion without reverting usage patterns. Some of these are starting to become a pressing issue – Indium, a key component of smart phone technology, was highlighted by the BBC as potentially becoming exhausted by 2023. Recycling will help to arrest this trend early and effectively. Perhaps even more importantly, it will stop wholesale trashing of natural lands in order to explore and exploit new reserves of these metals, preserving the natural landscape for future generations.
Therein lies the second argument to combat metal scarcity. Apart from the conveniences it provides, and the wonderful benefits of smart devices, it protects the natural landscape that humans benefit from, too. It’s in the best interests of all environmentalists to get behind the metal recycling trend, and push business to get involved, too. While the world will start pushing towards synthetic materials in their technology, widespread adoption isn’t going to come any time soon. In the meanwhile, making full efforts to emphasize the importance of recycling and get it on the international agenda will help to fight the rising specter of metal scarcity.