With concerns about the supply and geological availability of certain metals (or at least their extraction at a cost-effective rate), and with growing environmental concerns that propels us as societies to look for alternatives to the extraction of materials, it seems natural to look at methods and ways to recycle metals, particularly the main ones used in ICT (which generally uses much rarer, costlier metals that have the most damaging environmental effects when being extracted).
Indeed, the intrinsic nature of metals makes them suitable for recycling and repeated use, which greatly reduces the environmental impacts and energy expenditure associated with mining. In this article, we’ll try to go over the current state of metal recycling, what makes it tick, and what we can expect in the future.
The Life Cycle of Metals
Like all advanced industries, ICT is very metal-intensive. Driven by new technologies, the demand for metals, especially precious ones, have risen dramatically in the last three decades — some metals are being mined at 10 to 50 times the rate they were just 30 years ago. However, these metals have a life cycle that is largely impacted by recent technological advances that determine their longevity. The simplified life cycle of metals consists of 4 main stages:
- Mining, refining, recycling, or moulding raw materials
- Product manufacturing
- End of life
The production of raw materials is based on 3 sources: natural resources extracted from the ground, waste from industrial processes & byproducts of other industrial activities and metals recycled at the end of a product’s life (recyclates or old scrap). At each of the 4 stages of this cycle, no matter how effective and advanced we get, there will be residues generated which are the inevitable losses of raw materials.
In its use phase, the product holds some amount of metal exclusively that is generally accounted for through ‘metals in circulation/use’. At the end of the product’s life, it is dismantled and divided between its various components, metals being a vital part. Next, the metals are separated by type, ensuring that their composition is compatible with the recycling plants. This is necessary if you want to ensure the recycling process is successful.
By visualizing it as a circle representing a cycle beginning with mining and ending with recycling, you can easily envision the life cycle of a metal. From each node, however, a fraction of the metal gets splintered off from the cycle, because, as we mentioned, between each phase, there is some amount of metals lost. When manufacturing a product, you will lose some of the metal you’ve mined. When recycling an old product, you can’t save 100% of the metals used in it. This is why the degree of how perfectly “closed” the cycle depends on a few variables:
- The greater the collection of old products and the more suitable the recovered metals are for recycling, the more the cycle is closed and the less waste there is.
- The greater the residues, the more the circle opens up and the more waste will be generated.
The type of product is crucial if you care about recycling. Product design choices will influence this whole cycle in a number ways such as determining which product functionalities require the selection of the most suitable materials, in which mixtures and with which manufacturing processes? The consequences of these choices are reflected in the life cycles of the materials used as well as those of the products manufactured. These choices also influence the global demand for these metals and have repercussions on the efficiency of waste treatment at the end of the products’ life. If all of this sounds important to you, then you should definitely contact scrap metal collection companies.