UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Recycling rates for many specialty metals used in high-tech production are so low often less than 1 percent that may drain out in two to three decades, a U.N.-appointed panel said on Thursday.
The figure was disclosed as the U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP) began issuing a series of reports on metals, designed to encourage more recycling of existing metal stocks rather than depending on fresh mining for ores.
Thomas Graedel, a member of the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management set up by UNEP, said that without increasing the specialty metals recycling by the electronics industry would strain their availability.
At a U.N. news conference, he cited the case of indium, used in liquid crystal display glass, semiconductors, photovoltaic cells and other products. Demand for the metal is set to grow from 1,200 tons this year to 2,600 tons in 2020.
"Currently we think that recycling rates for indium are below one percent. We think that's the case for almost all of the specialty metals," said Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology at Yale University.
He said that while he was not predicting the materials would run out altogether, "we thought there is a reasonable prospect that over the next two or three decades some materials may be in short enough supply so that they will become essentially unavailable as routine materials for industry.
Prices for such metals could turn rise, changing the way they were typically used, said Graedel in releasing preliminary findings of a report the panel plans to publish in full in October.
Other metals whose recycling rates the panel said needed to be improved included neodymium, used in wind turbine magnets, and gallium, used for light emitting diodes in indicator lamps and lighting.
Graedel cited information from microchip maker Intel Corp. That the number of elements it used for computers rose from 11 in the 1980s to around 60 now, indicating that it would be hard to maintain current levels of computer manufacture if newer specialty metals became unavailable.
He explained that one reason for the poor recycling rates was the very small quantities of the metals used in each device, making recovery uneconomic. But better design could make the metals easier to recycle, he said.
In a separate report, the U.N. panel detailed what it said was a substantial shift in metals stocks from underground ores to existing products. "These 'mines above ground' have growing potential for future metals supply," it said.
Above-ground copper amounts to about 50 kg (112 pounds) for every person on earth, compared with more than 2 tons of iron, the panel said. The recycling rate for steel is about 75 percentage but for copper between 25 and 50 percent, it found.
Date: Jun 15, 2010
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