Recycling and Sustainability

Technology, economic advancement and population growth are important factors that will determine how much can recycling there will be in the future.
This is a crushed mobile phone. Photo: Axel Müller, NGU

Although minerals and metal ores fall into the category of "non-renewable resources" it does not mean all such natural resources completely vanish. They are stored all around us, in buildings, bridges, tablet computers, and cars, and remain there until these products are destroyed or discarded. Increasingly more metals and ores are being recycled. The recovery rate for steel is approaching 90%, while for copper it is nearly 35% globally and 50% in the European Union . When you deliver your mobile phone for recycling, you can be sure that at least the copper, gold and silver it contains are recovered.

Some geo-resources are more difficult to recover, particularly those rare earth metals contained in discarded electronic products. These metals are deeply embedded, in complex mixtures or else dispersed throughout the device in such small amounts that separation is complicated, energy demanding and economically unfeasible. Fortunately, increasingly more manufacturers are producing electronics in a way that it is easier to reclaim and reuse the metals they contain than to go out and mine them again.

The level of recycling is dependent on the supply of discarded products. In emerging economies,  characterized by urbanization and rapidly growing middle class, there are less 'in-use' stocks of metal for recovery than are available in more developed economies. If prosperity was more equally distributed across the globe, and population growth was stabilized, 'in-use' metal and ore resources may be our mines of the future.

Along with reclaiming metals and ores from manufactured goods and construction material, there is also recycling of secondary resources, particularly old mining waste and tailings. Sometimes we can exploit secondary resources commercially, thereby substantially reducing the environmental impact of mining while making most of the metals and ores left behind after primary extraction.  Full extraction of the ore was not necessary in the past: the technology did not exist to completely extract all traces of ores, and mining operations did not suffer by leaving behind waste.  Around the world abandoned mines are being exploited for a second time. NGU is working to map these secondary resources.