What Do We Know About Metal Recycling Rates?

T. E. Graedel, J. M. Allwood, J-P. Birat, M. Buchert, C. Hagelüken, B. K. Reck, S. F. Sibley, G. Sonnemann

The recycling of metals is widely viewed as a fruitful sustainability strategy, but little information is available on the degree to which recycling is actually taking place. This article provides an overview on the current knowledge of recycling rates for 60 metals. We propose various recycling metrics, discuss relevant aspects of recycling processes, and present current estimates on global end-of-life recycling rates (EOL-RR; i.e., the percentage of a metal in discards that is actually recycled), recycled content (RC), and old scrap ratios (OSRs; i.e., the share of old scrap in the total scrap flow). Because of increases in metal use over time and long metal in-use lifetimes, many RC values are low and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Because of relatively low efficiencies in the collection and processing of most discarded products, inherent limitations in recycling processes, and the fact that primary material is often relatively abundant and low-cost (which thereby keeps down the price of scrap), many EOL-RRs are very low: Only for 18 metals (silver, aluminum, gold, cobalt, chromium, copper, iron, manganese, niobium, nickel, lead, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium, tin, titanium, and zinc) is the EOL-RR above 50% at present. Only for niobium, lead, and ruthenium is the RC above 50%, although 16 metals are in the 25% to 50% range. Thirteen metals have an OSR greater than 50%. These estimates may be used in considerations of whether recycling efficiencies can be improved; which metric could best encourage improved effectiveness in recycling; and an improved understanding of the dependence of recycling on economics, technology, and other factors.