Metals can be used and recycled through the economy almost without limit. Fewer Mines = Less Pollution = Less GHGs
“One of the beauties of steel is you can keep recycling it. It is infinitely recyclable,” says Ron Watkins, president of the Canadian Steel Producers Association.
Those who doubt the strength of recycled steel need only have experienced the 12-kilometre security fence for the G20 meeting in Toronto, made entirely of recycled steel.
If “secondary steel” (made from totalled cars and dead appliances) is good enough for the G20, it’s obvious that recycled steel should increasingly replace primary steel. This would phase out the need for mining of iron ore and metallurgical coal used in primary steel production. Production of secondary steel uses electric-arc furnaces, not coal, to melt the scrap.
Jamie Kneen, of MiningWatch Canada, told me in a recent phone interview that “mining is a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions” and should increasingly be replaced with secondary metals. “Metals do not lose their mechanical or metallurgical properties when recycled, while retaining their economic value.” As a result, he says, “Metals can be used and recycled through the economy almost without limit.”
That’s exactly the thinking behind a preliminary report called The Recycling Rates of Metals: A Status Report, released in May by the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). The report says, for example, that global primary steel production causes 2.2 billion tonnes of GHG emissions annually; however, “for each 100 million tonnes of primary steel substituted by secondary or recycled steel, a saving of around 150 million tonnes of C02 is possible.”
Recycled steel production also uses 40% less water and produces 97% fewer mining wastes, besides reducing costs by 90%.
Metals recycling “could save millions if not billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions,” while also generating green jobs, says the UNEP preliminary report, but countries simply are not doing enough to recapture metals for re-use. UNEP’s final report will be released in autumn 2010.
UNEP’s Working Group on Metals, the authors of the preliminary report, is chaired by Thomas Graedel, professor of Industrial Ecology at Yale University. Graedel says, “One of the phenomena of our modern, industrial age is that increasingly metals stocks are ‘above ground’ in structures such as buildings and ships and products from cell phones to personal computers.” Graedel calls these “an extraordinary resource for sustainable development not only in terms of supplies but also the opportunity for reducing energy demand while curbing pollution, including rising greenhouse gas emissions.”
Energy use is a “huge issue” for mining, says Kneen. “They go through an awful lot of diesel fuel” for extraction and refining, with energy “about one-third of their costs.” In fact, by 2004, more than 8% of all energy used in Canada was for mining, milling and smelting.
Recycling metals, sometimes called “urban mining,” is between two and ten times more energy efficient than smelting the metal from virgin ores. For example, recycling zinc results in 60% of energy savings; steel – 74%; copper – 85%; aluminum – 95%. These are major savings in energy use.
Currently only a few metals, such as iron and platinum, have global recycling rates of 50% or higher. About 40% of the world’s copper production and about 30% of the world’s aluminum production use recycled metals.
Copper, aluminum, lead and tin could easily be recycled at a very high rate globally but are not, largely because of various nations’ policy inaction and inertia. The UNEP report states that improving the recycling rates of common, mass-produced metals such as copper and steel could “play an important part in meeting climate change targets.”
GHG emissions from recycling aluminum, for example, are about 12 times lower than primary aluminum production. For every tonne of copper recycled, the GHG emission reductions are estimated at four tonnes of equivalent C02. For every tonne of steel recycled, the GHG emissions reductions are equivalent to one tonne of C02 .
The Canadian Situation
The Green Budget Coalition (which includes 21 Canadian ENGOs) estimates that “Canadian households discard between 116,000 and 232,000 tonnes of scrap metal a year, much of which could be recycled.” But think of the military, with its vast techno-graveyards of obsolete hardware.
Neither Statistics Canada nor Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) collects comprehensive information on metals recycling. The Minerals and Metals Sector of NRCan states on its website: “The amount of metal recycled and recovered in Canada has never been accurately measured” because “the same material will pass through many hands before it reaches the smelter, refiner, or furnace,” thereby increasing the potential for measurement errors.
The Canadian Association of Recycling Industries (CARI), which represents more than 260 companies, estimates that more than 16 million tonnes of scrap metal are recycled in Canada annually. Len Shaw, Executive Director of CARI, told me that figure is “more than 80% of all scrap available for recycling, apart from remote areas” where it’s harder to get. “We’re doing a good job in metals” in Canada, he said.
Ramsey Hart, of MiningWatch Canada, says, “I’d be thrilled if that’s the case,” but “there’s no way we’re recycling 80%” of our scrap metal now. The real question,” he says, “is: What does CARI mean by the phrase ‘available for recycling’? Does that mean ‘metals collected’? or ‘easily recyclable metals’? We could be recycling 80% of what’s available for recycling, but what’s available could be only 20%” of a given metal.”
Rob Sinclair of NRCan also told me scrap metal recycling numbers are “tricky” because “there’s ‘new scrap,’ ‘old scrap,’ ‘run-around scrap,’ ‘home scrap,’ and the stuff that’s hardest to track is ‘post-consumer scrap.’ I think it’s a high number [that Canada is recycling], but I don’t know what it is. Sometimes,” he says, “the private sector likes to give a more positive outlook” than is really the case.
Moreover, a high percentage of Canadian scrap is actually exported (particularly to the US), rather than used domestically for re-manufacturing – but is still counted as recycled. Canada is also not doing such a good job when it comes to electronic waste (e-waste), which is counted separately in the industry. And most important, the metals recycling industry continues to face a variety of barriers in Canada.
Barriers to Metals Recycling
In their “Recommendations for Budget 2010,” the Green Budget Coalition placed “Metal and Mineral Recycling” as the second of seven recommended actions for the Canadian federal government. Corporate tax rates still favour mining over recycling. MiningWatch Canada has long been asking for the elimination of the 100% Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance (ACCA) for mining, or alternatively, the extention of the 100% ACCA to metal recycling facilities. Federal financial policies provide “substantial tax benefits that are unique to the mining industry,” says Jamie Kneen, helping make the costs of producing primary metals and minerals “artificially low.” This is a great disadvantage to metals recovery and recycling.
MiningWatch Canada’s website notes that the subsidies to the mineral and metal mining industries include “the protection from environmental liability, as well as the provision of infrastructure, energy and water at less than the full cost. For example, Canadian industries have traditionally enjoyed energy prices that were among the lowest in the world, which has simply encouraged the development of energy-intensive industries such as mining. If energy subsidies are removed in Canada, some mines may be proved to be so inefficient that they become uneconomical.”
Critics of the Site C hydroelectric project in BC argue that it is being developed primarily to feed a northwest transmission line to facilitate new mining developments at Dease Lake. Marilyn Baptiste, Chief of Xeni Gwet’in First Nations, says Taseko’s controversial Prosperity Mine copper-gold project (which proposes to use Fish Lake as a tailings-pond dump)depends on “a $35 million-plus annual subsidy from BC Hydro rate-payers to supply the mine with cheap power.”
In 2004, Canadian subsidies to the mining industry were estimated at “over $510 million annually, not including the cost of remediating the over 10,000 abandoned mines they have left behind” in Canada, according to Joan Kuyek, former National Co-ordinator of MiningWatch Canada.
Other tax breaks for primary mining in Canada include the Mineral Exploration Tax Credit and the Super Flow Through Share Program, which allows exploration expenses to be passed on to shareholders as tax write-offs. Companies can also accumulate their exploration and development expenses in tax pools that can be transferred and sold.
MiningWatch Canada has also found that “in 2002 and 2003, some of our largest mining companies, with sales in the billions, paid no corporate income tax, thanks to their ability to write-off exploration and development, operating and capital expenses at the time of their choosing.” The metals recycling industry gets no such tax breaks.
Even the OECD has recommended that Canada’s “preferential tax treatment of conventional resource sectors, such as oil and gas, minerals and metals, should be eliminated” on both environmental and economic grounds.
The Feds’ bias toward primary mining instead of recycling is also apparent in Natural Resources Canada’s 2009-2010 Report on Plans and Priorities, which makes no mention of metals recycling or lifecycle stewardship of minerals and metals. In another concession, Ottawa this year quietly revised the rules governing environmental assessments of major projects such as mines, allowing Environment Canada to dilute reviews at the minister’s discretion – thereby effectively neutering the federal environmental review process.
“While other countries are providing support to their [metals] recycling sector,” says Kneen, “Canada continues to favour the more environmentally damaging and unsustainable extraction of primary metals, putting the Canadian recycling industry at a competitive disadvantage.”
The market price for secondary metal and minerals is the key driver for successful implementation of recycling. When the recent Great Recession caused losses in the commodities market, metals recyclers also saw the prices paid for scrap metals greatly reduced. Now both are on the upswing.
However, because of the current prices on container shipping, it costs only a few hundred dollars to send a container back to China, so it is often cheaper to send scrap metal overseas than it is to ship it by rail to domestic smelters. Canada bans the export of e-waste to developing countries, but Canadian companies are allowed to ship e-waste to brokers in the US, which has no such rules against transporting materials offshore.
That’s one of the reasons why Ontario’s e-waste disposal program (Ontario Electronic Stewardship) in its first year gathered only one-third of the 42,000 tonnes of e-waste it had planned to collect. Rather than sell the e-waste to the OES for $235 per tonne, some recyclers are selling the material outside the country for five times that amount.
Professor Graedel says, “Metal shortages are going to push us to become more innovative designers and more efficient recyclers.” Scientists are now saying that copper, zinc, and platinum are “endangered” and could be in short supply by the end of this century. Already, minerals such as gallium (used in electronics equipment), indium (used in photovoltaic cells, semiconductors and LEDs), and hafnium (used in integrated circuits and nuclear reactors) could run short within a decade.
These are metals that are crucial for clean technologies like solar energy and advanced batteries. But the preliminary UNEP report states that recycling rates for electronics equipment (which contain these fully recyclable metals, along with silver, gold, aluminum, bismuth, copper, nickel, palladium, lead, antimony, iron and zinc) are globally “just between five and ten%, in part because less than 10% of consumer cell phones are recycled properly.”
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) has an Industry Stewardship Program (ISP) called Recycle My Cell which has received approval in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, as well as formal recognition in PEI, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Labrador and Saskatchewan, but is only on a voluntary operating basis in Ontario. In 2009, the Recycle My Cell ISP recovered only 345,694 cell phones nationally. Over 21 million Canadians have cell service and most people likely buy a new phone every two years.
In June the CWTA withdrew its application for Ontario ISP certification, citing red tape and foot-dragging by Waste Diversion Ontario. Unfortunately, this occurred at the same time that the Ontario Liberal government capitulated to lobbying pressure and postponed (possibly permanently) its revisions for Ontario’s Waste Diversion Act, which would have greatly extended the province’s product stewardship and extended producer responsibility programs.
In North America, the recycling rate for electronics equipment is only about 18%. CARI estimates that Canada generates about 140,000 tonnes of e-waste annually.
As UNEP’s Working Group on Metals chair Thomas Graedel says, “We need to do a better job of grabbing those metals for recycling, which means we need to be doing a better job of product design to allow for this recovery.”
And that better design, fuelled by product stewardship, could lead to other benefits, like cutting energy use and GHG emissions, and fewer mines around the Canadian countryside.
Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books.