Beyond the Aluminum Can

Image credit: Todd Helmenstine / sciencenotes.org

Why Recycling Across the Periodic Table Matters

By Kate Whitbeck, Sustainability Office

When the average person thinks about metal recycling the image that pops into their head is of an aluminum or tin can – a soda can or the can that beans or corn came in. They aren’t thinking of all of the 62 elements that make up the metals of the periodic table. All of those metals, like fossil fuels, are finite resources that we, as a human population, aren’t managing responsibly. Recycling rates for most metals are well below 50 percent. The challenge is that modern technology is critically dependent on each element of the periodic table. We know that metal recycling is more energy-efficient than mining virgin materials and doesn’t have the same kind of social and environmental implications. So, how efficiently are we using these resources and what happens when metals become scarce?

Professor Barbara Reck is a senior research scientist at Yale University’s Center for Industrial Ecology who studies the role of metals in society, particularly nickel and stainless steel; where they are sourced from, how they are used, disposed of, and recycled, and the implications thereof on their future availability. On August 27th from 4-5 p.m. in ASB 210, join her for her lecture, “Why using metals efficiently matters” as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center seminar series.

Dr. Reck earned her doctorate degree in environmental engineering at  Technische Universitӓt Berlin in Germany. In the early 2000s, she was part of a team of pioneering researchers which mapped out the first global (and national) metal cycles, looking at current and historical flows of specific metals, developing scenarios of possible future metal use, and assessing metal supply and demand. This work was part of the Stocks and Flows (STAF) project conducted at Yale’s Center for Industrial Ecology.

While working on these metal cycles, the research team came to understand that metal recycling rates were not clearly or uniformly defined.  Working in collaboration with many industry associations, academics, and EU representatives through the United Nations’ Environmental Program’s (UNEP) International Resource Panel, they set about establishing a consistent set of recycling metrics and quantifying the recycling rates for the 62 metals and metalloids of the periodic table.

What the results of those metrics indicated was that there was a large discrepancy in the recycling efficiency of major (e.g., steel, aluminum) versus minor (e.g., indium, germanium) metals. The recycling rate of major metals is around 50-60% whereas minor metals hardly get recycled at all. “One of the major challenges,” Dr. Reck explains, “is that low-carbon technologies such as solar, wind or electric vehicles are very dependent on these minor metals. For a low-carbon future, these technologies need to be up-scaled big time, which means that the demand for the minor metals involved would skyrocket in the future.” This finding led to the Criticality Project which looked at whether the future demand for each metal could be met by its supply from primary (i.e., known mines and reserves) and secondary (ie., recycled) sources.

The research that Dr. Reck and her colleagues have been focused on has helped ensure that corporate, national, and global stakeholders have the tools they need to make strategic decisions around metal use. To learn more about the importance of building a circular economy when it comes to using metals in addition to your aluminum and steel cans come to ASB 210 on August 27 at 4 p.m. for Dr. Reck’s GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Why Using Metals Efficiently Matter.”

 

 


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