Preface. This is a post about why rare and critical metals aren’t recycled at all or at best, just a small percent. Basically it is still cheaper to mine them from scratch than to try to separate them out from electronic devices, and often impossible since they are an alloy or embedded with other metals that chemicals, heat, pressure and other techniques can’t separate out.
Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com author of “Life After Fossil Fuels: A Reality Check on Alternative Energy”, April 2021, Springer, “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report
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The more intricate a product and the more minerals used, the better it will perform, but the more difficult it is to recycle the metals essential to making it work so well to begin with
With infinite amounts of energy, money, and time metals could be recycled. But in the real world it doesn’t happen due to the high cost, complex processes, and large amount of energy it takes to separate material, as well as poor recycling technologies, product design, and social behavior.
Less than 1% of 34 rare and critical metals are recycled. These metals are essential to microchips, solar PV, consumer electronics — pretty much all high-tech products have them.
But it is simply thermodynamically impossible to separate and recover many of them since they’re used in such tiny amounts for extremely precise purposes, and mixed with other rare metals (Bloodworth 2014, Reck 2012).
Metals such as tantalum, gallium, germanium, and rare-earth elements are oxidized and lost in the smelter slag (Hageluken 2012).
The most commonly recycled metals are also the cheapest and most abundant on the planet, such as steel, aluminum, copper, zinc, lead, and nickel, with rates often over 50%. This high recovery rate is due to their presence in relatively pure form in large amounts in products. But even these are reused 2 or 3 times before being lost to landfills.
The methods to recover rare metals are far more complex. These metals are used in myriad applications, from cell phones to satellites. Up to 60 different elements go into the manufacture of microprocessors and circuit boards (Gunn 2013), usually in tiny quantities and often in combinations not found in nature.
The need to recycle is obvious — only by doing so can the life of these resources be extended to future generations, since ores continue to be of lower and lower grades that need more energy to extract while at the same time the oil, coal, and natural gas energy needed to extract minerals is diminishing.
Even the valuable precious metals only have a recycling rate of 60%, and just a 50% recovery of platinum, palladium, and rhodium from auto catalytic converters because so many old cars are exported to developing countries that don’t have recovery technology. For the same reason, when it comes to the platinum group metals in electronics, the rate is even lower, just 5 to 10%.
Many of these metals are highly toxic to plants and animals, yet they’re recycled at very low rates, one of the reasons a fifth of China’s arable land is polluted with toxic heavy metals (Chin 2014). One of the worst, cadmium, is mainly recycled from nickel-cadmium batteries, but at very low rates. Mercury recovery is at best 10-20% recovered from fluorescent light bulbs. Ecotoxicity from metal-containing nanomaterials is also a problem.
The US Geological survey estimates the average recycling rate for most metals is 50% (Papp 2007). This means that after just 4 recycles, we’ve lost 95% of the original amount.
This is a shame, because most metals used in electronic devices use rare earth metals for which there is no substitution with the same efficiency. And a shortage of some looms, the reserves-to-production ratio for gallium, germanium, and indium (indispensable for touch screens and other displays) is estimated to be less than 20 years of supply (Frondel et al. 2006). Less than 1% of rare elements are cycled from e-waste. It’s too expensive to recycle them, so they end up in furnaces burned up with the plastic boards containing them. The few places rare earth metals are recovered don’t want to share their proprietary methods with other potential recyclers.
Worse yet, planned obsolescence is alive and well. Objects are still designed to break down and impossible to repair, forcing customers to buy a new one.
Thermodynamics is the ultimate limitation at the final processing stage and can’t be separated out.
Material is lost along the way
- Initial collection: a fraction of overall electronic equipment is turned into recycling centers, the percent depends on social and government factors.
- Recycling centers: much of the electronic waste is sent to countries that have inadequate recycling facilities
- Preprocessing & Sorting – some components are too much effort to take apart, so they’re discarded. Nor is there enough material to justify the cost of machine recycling technology.
- Recycling technology: Usually just shredding, crushing, magnetic sorting is done. It’s too expensive to recover even more with lasers, near-infrared, or x-ray sorting.
- Product design: often makes it hard to separate products out, such as laminated permanent magnets in computers.
- Smelter – the easier, larger, most common metals make it to the smelter, i.e. iron, aluminum, etc. Not all material that was collected and could be smelted reaches the smelters, especially if smelters are distant.
Downcycling (Bardi 2014).
One of the big problems with waste recycling is known as “downcycling”, because the recycled material isn’t as good as the original product. Consider steel. Although we recycle 68% of iron and steel, the problem is that the original steel was custom-made for a particular application to be hard or strong or corrosion resistant. This is done by adding other elements and creating an alloy with the needed properties (i.e. chromium, cobalt, silicon, manganese, vanadium, and other elements). Trying to control the concentration of these other metals during recycling is so complex and expensive that it usually isn’t done. As a result, recycled steel is lower-quality since it can’t be counted on to be as hard, strong, or corrosion-resistant and can’t be re-used in many industries.
Every time paper is recycled its fibers get shorter which makes an inferior product. Downcycling prevents perpetual recycling.
Similarly, when different kinds of plastics are mixed the resulting plastic has poor mechanical properties with limited uses.
Beverage cans have magnesium mixed in with the aluminum, requiring several more stages of separation to be transformed back into pure aluminum.
In all cases, recycling grows more difficult as the recycled fraction increases or higher performance is needed from the recycled material.
In the end, that takes more money and energy, which is why economically justifiable recycling is far less than 100%. Rare metals like indium and gallium are not recycled at all.
Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Bloodworth, A. 2014. Track flows to manage technology-metal supply. Recycling cannot meet the demand for rare metals used in digital and green technologies. Nature 505: 19-20.
Chin J, et al. 2014. China details vast extent of soil pollution. About a fifth of nation’s arable land is contaminated with heavy metals. Wall Street Journal.
Frondel, M., et al. 2006. Trends der angebots- und nachfragesituation bei mineralischen rohstoffen. Federal ministry of economics and energy.
Gunn, A. G. 2013. In Proc. 12th Bienn. Soc. Geol. Appl. Miner. Depos. Meet (SGA, 2013)
Hageluken, C et al. 2012. Precious Materials Handbook, Ch 1. Hanua-Wolfgang.
Papp, J. F. 2007. 2005 minerals yearbook: recycling—metals. U.S. Geological Survey.
Pihl, E., et al. 2012. Material constraints for concentrating solar thermal power. Energy 44: 944-954
Reck, B. K. et al. 2012. Challenges in Metal Recycling. Science 337: 690-695
Wadia, C. et al. 2009. Materials Availability Expands the Opportunity for Large-Scale Photovoltaics Deployment. Environ. Sci. Technol 43: 2072-2077