Metal: The ‘Star Child’ of the Circular Economy

Metal is a material that has been praised for its qualities of strength, durability, and versatility since its first discovery at around 9000 BC. When we speak of metal, we are not speaking of one single entity but rather a vast range of materials with different physical and chemical properties. Thus, metal takes many forms which allows it to be used in a variety of products – from phones to skyscrapers – and for multiple functions, such as conducting electricity, providing structure in cars and buildings, or as heat protection for a sensitive product.

For such an adaptable and dependable product, it is no wonder that in 30 years the global demand for metal increased by 87%. And if emerging economies adopt the lifestyle currently held by developed countries, it is predicted that the metal required globally would be 3-9 times as much metal that currently exists. This further development of infrastructure around the world, coupled with the rise of technology and even the growing use of  renewable energy technologies has driven the demand for metal to unsustainable rates.

Recycling can only produce at most the amount of metal that already exists in the system.

Recycling, of course, provides a viable solution, as it reduces the demand for and impact of virgin mined metals, while using significantly less energy than primary production. Nonetheless, recycling can only produce at most the amount of metal that already exists in the system. With an ever-increasing demand, the supply of metals remains an economic and environmental problem. The environmental impacts of metal mining and processing are broad, causing a combination of air pollution, water pollution, and land degradation, leading to biodiversity loss.

Furthermore, lots of valuable metals are lost due to the current method of recycling. Often when an end-of-life product is recycled, only the main component is extracted from the product and the others are ignored. For example the electric components of appliances such as microwaves and washing machines, which contain rare specialty metals, are often neglected during recycling and have recycling rates of less than 1%.

Product-Centric Recycling of Metal

The Product-Centric approach to recycling eliminates this problem by recycling per product rather than per material. This approach takes an end-of-life product as a whole and extracts all the different materials that compose it, which are then recycled separately. For example, a broken smart phone is disassembled and its steel, cobalt, nickel, aluminium, and precious metals are all extracted and recycled each in their respective way. This way, no part of the initial product goes to waste, and as more metals are looped back into the system there is less of a need for them to be mined.

Product-Centric Recycling
Product-Centric Recycling Infographic by UN Environment International Resource Panel.

It is also important to understand the difference between recycling that degrades the material and recycling that retains the materials’ original quality. Metal is one of those materials which can boast the latter – it can be recycled again and again without losing any of the integrity it held as a virgin metal. Also, unlike other materials such as wood and plastic, with the right processing low grade metals can be recycled upwards into high grade metals. These incredible qualities make steel the star child of a circular material, as its value is never lost.

Zero Waste

But of course, the circular economy is not just about recycling, it’s about creating zero waste throughout the entire life cycle. And yet again, metal steps up to the plate. Many of the by-products of metals can be put to use, such as slag in road construction, process gasses in electricity production, and emulsions and chemicals in the chemical industry. These opportunities not only keeps metal in all its parts within the loop of a circular economy, but also has the potential to significantly reduce metal’s environmental impact if maximized properly.

Hence, metal can boast a full circular life cycle:

Raw Material Extraction & Refinery: The mining of metals can be reduced via effective recycling and re-inserting of existing metals back into the system.

Manufacture: During manufacture, the by-products of metal processing can be looped back into the system in other industries.

Use: Metal’s use is prolonged due to the high quality that results from its ability to retain its integrity during recycling.

End-of-Life: When a metal reaches the end of its usefulness in one purpose, its life can be extended by reuse. Online trading platforms such as MaterialTrader.com facilitate the trading of such materials and residues, allowing the material to be useful for another purpose before it is dropped into recycling to complete the cycle again.

The circular life cycle of metal.
The circular life cycle of metal.

If you are in the market to buy or sell metals, or any other type of material, why don’t you try the circular option? Help us get the circular economy going by trading them on MaterialTrader.com. It’s free, easy, and environmentally friendly.

Leave a Reply