* Global demand for metals set to surge by 3-9 times -
* Better designs to allow recycling would cut demand for
* More recycling could combat mountain of electronic waste
By Alister Doyle and Nina Chestney
OSLO/LONDON, April 24 Designers of everything
from mobile phones to electric car batteries should make their
products far easier to recycle to offset soaring demand for
metals, two United Nations reports recommended on Wednesday.
Products should be made to become "designer minerals" at the
end of their lifetimes so they can more simply be broken up and
stripped of metals ranging from copper to gold, according to the
"Global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than
all the metals currently used in the world" if demand in
emerging economies rises to levels of rich nations, said Achim
Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme.
The total amount of steel in use in the United States, for
instance, was an estimated 11 to 12 metric tonnes per person in
2010, compared with 1.5 tonnes in China.
"Product designers need to ensure that materials such as
rare earth metals in products ranging from solar panels and wind
turbine magnets to mobile phones can still be recovered easily
when they reach the end of their life," he said in a statement.
Recycling rates are low in most nations and electronic waste
alone is estimated at between 20 to 50 million tonnes a year, or
between three and seven kilos (7-15 pounds) per person. Most
ends up dumped or burned, contaminating air, water and soil.
A third report by a non-governmental organisation quoted
estimates that about 130 million mobile phones are thrown away
annually in the United States. Collectively, they weigh about
14,000 tonnes and include almost 2,100 tonnes of copper, 46
tonnes of silver and 3.9 tonnes of gold.
A mobile phone alone can contain more than 40 elements
including copper, tin, cobalt, indium, antimony, silver, gold,
palladium, tungsten and yttrium. Most are in tiny amounts but
recycling would take pressure off mining.
The two reports by the United Nations' International
Resource Panel urged governments to agree on best available
recycling technologies. So far, recycling laws are limited
mostly to developed nations.
Manufacturers also should start with ease of recycling in
mind, the reports said, for instance avoiding mixes of metals
that are hard to separate. Platinum group metals, for instance,
can effectively dissolve when mixed into steel.
"Some combinations are harder and uneconomic to separate,"
Markus Reuter, lead author of the report on metals recycling,
told Reuters. He likened some mixes to trying to separate a cup
of coffee into water, milk, sugar and coffee.
Rising demand for metals will also have to be curbed with
lighter-weight designs. In the European Union, for instance, the
average weight of cars rose to 1.2 tonnes in 2001 from 0.85
tonnes in 1981.
Recycling could also cut energy demand and greenhouse gases
compared to mining, which often uses 10 to 100 times more energy
than recycling for the same amount of metal.
"Metals use seven to eight percent of the world's total
energy in their primary production. That's larger than anyone
had thought," Ester van der Voet, lead author of the other
report on metals and environmental challenges, told Reuters.
The third study, by the Gaia Foundation, said the world's
growing addiction to throwaway consumer electronics was putting
enormous pressure on resources such as metals, minerals, water
In the United States, it said, 80 percent of electronic
waste was shipped to developing countries in Asia or Africa
where it was handled in bad social and environmental conditions.
"In failing to create effective recycling systems, we are
thus outsourcing our toxic waste and turning parts of the world
into digital dumps."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)