Metal Recycling

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Metal recycling is increasingly promoted as an effective way to address resource scarcity and mitigate environment impacts associated with metal production and use, but there is little systemic information available regarding recycling performance, and still less on the true recycling rates that are possible and how to do better considering the system in its totality.

The former topic was the subject of an earlier report from the International Resource Panel (Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report, 2011). In the present report, the second topic is addressed.

This new report discusses the benefits and necessity of approaching recycling from products, considering them as complex “designer minerals” with typical structures and joining's.

This Product Centric approach therefore takes account of the complexities of modern products (which are often much more complex than geological minerals), and the ways in which non-traditional mixtures of elements are now common. The approach gains much useful perspective from experience in classical minerals and metallurgical processing. All contained metals in all streams can be tracked by revealing the “mineralogizes” of the material particles, thereby allowing a more detailed and deeper understanding of these complex systems. As the report argues, modern technology systems require not only efficient end-of-life collection of products, but also effective sorting after collection, and then the optimum suite of physical separation and metallurgical technologies for an economically viable recovery of metals from the sorted Recyclites.

The report shows how failure at any stage of the recycling chain limits recycling performance, and shows as well that basic thermodynamic, technological, and economic limitations may prevent metallurgical metal recovery for some combinations of metals and materials.

The complementary Material Centric recycling viewpoint, as presented in the first report, has the capability to answer the question of how much is recycled but does not pretend to answer why and what should be done to improve recycling of metals.

This new report sheds light on how to improve the recovery of especially those critical technology elements that were shown to have low recycling rates. The report concludes with a number of tools that can aid decision-makers in arriving at improved recycling approaches.

This provides a physics basis for performing Design for Recycling and Sustainability, Eco-labeling, and quantifying resource efficiency, as well as estimating the opportunities, limits, and infrastructure of recycling.

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