Monday, June 6, 2011

Cleantech Needs Recycling

Resource Extraction Has Limits

Rare earth elements
~ Our modern gadgets need many different kinds of resource inputs, including dozens of rare and unusual elements:
Try as we might, it's impossible to fashion wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles out of thin air. These technologies are complex, and many different materials go into their production. The problem is, a lot of the necessary metals aren't recycled at the end of their lives--and that could lead to shortages in the future, putting the entire clean technology sector at risk.

The news comes from a new UN report, which explains that under one-third of 60 recyclable metals have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50%. And 34 elements--many of which are crucial for clean technology--have recycling rates of less than 1%. This may not seem like a big deal now, but mined metals are a limited resource. As these materials become more scarce, we will see increases in land disruption, water impacts, energy use, and of course, cost.
The article makes a common mistake of referring to industrial metals (here: selenium and tellurium) as rare earths, which they are not. Rare earth elements are the lanthanides, although many other elements are, or will be, experiencing similar supply chain pressures. Nonetheless, the core point remains valid: in a world of ramping demand for products that consume finite resources, recycling is neceesary for sustained production.

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