Why We Don’t Recycle More Aluminum and Rare Earth Elements

On Tuesday, I was interviewed by The Clear Clean Energy View radio show. The title of my segment, “Why We Don’t Recycle More Aluminum and Rare Earth Elements”, was mainly about aluminum – but more specifically, it was about society’s role in the use and recycling of natural resources.

A World View

Most of the US’s raw materials based products and processes were designed in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and were created based on the idea that we have an unlimited supply of primary materials. At that time, the world population was 4 billion, and consumption was relatively low. Now, in 2012, the world population is over 6 billion; and with such an increase, you can imagine how consumption has increased and raw material supplies have dwindled.

The US doesn’t have enough resources, so a lot of natural resources and manufactured goods are imported (the US is the largest importer of manufactured goods). Much of the metals we use – such as rare earth metals that are used for energy production sources and electronic devices – are mined in Africa. This practice of mining was glamorized in the movie Blood Diamond; though the movie was a Hollywood depiction of the African industry of mining for blood elements, the concept is not far from the real thing. In this mining industry, imperfect work conditions and human rights issues abound . Raw materials required for making one aluminum can had to travel 8,000 miles, from origination, just to be discarded. While consumption in the 1950’s and 1960’s was limited, our current consumption is growing. There are many ethical and economic, as well as resource-limiting, reasons to increase the US recycling rate.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

It is a fact that recycling aluminum is cheaper than creating more materials – recycling is the most energy efficient and resource conserving activity. The US’s current recycling rate is 55%; and while it is improving, there are many other countries who have a higher recycling rate than us: Brazil, China, India, Japan and Norway (just to name a few) have rates well into the 90 percentile.

To use the term loosely, we are lazy consumers. There are three primary reasons for that:

  1. The convenience to recycle is not there. The culture to recycle is also not there – we are used to buying and throwing, which has become our consumer habit.
  1. Products are not being designed with recycling in mind. For commercial and marketing reasons, companies create cans made of multiple alloys.
  1. There is too much product differentiation, which has become a detriment to sustainability. For example, American ice cream shops have a variety of flavor choices, which causes us to use more materials. Many of these flavored ice creams are not eaten – the tubs sit in the ice cream shops and unnecessarily occupy space and use materials. Recyclability and sustainability are highly reduced if there are so many varieties of a product.

The Intersection of Technology and Sustainability

Every cell phone uses a multiple of elements, almost 50-60 different kinds. Many of these elements are not recycled; and these cell phones that are made from rare earth and critical elements are often discarded when a new cell phone model is released.

June Stoyer, the host of The Clear Clean Energy View, made a valid point. She said, “Marketing – that’s how they make money. No one will buy the old stuff if it’s the same.”

The mistake that manufacturers make is that they don’t design products based on recyclability. Manufacturers must think about recyclability, and this has to happen from the design phase and not the post-consumer phase. Manufacturers should design a product based on the assumption that one day it will be recycled. When manufacturers make faster and newer products, older products become unwanted and hinder sustainability. Manufacturers are not being conservative with their resources.

The Driving Force

It falls to society to be aware that our earth’s resources are limited. It is hard to say where the driving force for recycling will develop. Three areas of consideration are:

  1. Government Action:  Eleven states have deposit laws for cans, and these states have a 75% aluminum-recycling rate. The remaining 39 states hover around 45%. Government legislation helps, but is frequently opposed by companies who make beverages.
  1. Consumer awareness: Consumers must ask themselves, “Do I need the latest electronic product? Is it necessary?”
  1. Quality of Life: Too many products may result in a lack of exercise; too much time spent with technology could also result in a loss of family life and social skills.

All three aspects – grassroots, government legislation and scientific studies – must be considered in order to increase recycling rates. We must incorporate awareness into our everyday lifestyles.

You can listen to the entire interview here.

Conceived, Developed and Written by Dr. Subodh Das and Tara Mahadevan

October 12, 2012

Copyright 2012. All rights Reserved by Phinix, LLC.

www.phinix.net    skdas@phinix.net

Social Share Toolbar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>