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Worldwatch Institute: Global metals production recovers

The global production of key metals increased more than 14 percent in 2010 marking a robust recovery from the sharp decline spurred by the 2009 global recession. Production totaled 1.48 billion tons in 2010, the last year for which data are available, according to research conducted for the Worldwatch Institute’s Vital Signs project. The increase marks a return to the rise in metals production, driven in part by the rapid economic expansion of newly prosperous developing countries such as China, India and Brazil.

The 14.3 percent surge in production was driven not only by common metals such as aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, gold, lead, mercury, nickel and steel, but also by more obscure but emerging metals. “Dozens of metals show strong growth as more countries industrialize,” said report author Gary Gardner, a senior fellow at Worldwatch. “And increasingly complex products require materials that are not heard about in daily conversation – from hafnium used in nuclear reactors to rhenium, a key metal in jet engines.

“While steel production declined sharply in advanced industrial regions during the 2007-09 recession, it continued its longtime increase in Asia, driven in particular by ongoing strong growth in China,” said Gardner. “Steel production in China has quadrupled in the past decade.”

Not surprisingly, per capita metal consumption is closely correlated with per capita gross domestic product (GDP). According to the U.S. Geological Survey, countries with per capita GDPs of under $5,000 consume less than 5 kilograms of aluminum per person, whereas those with GDPs exceeding $25,000 consume 15 to 35 kilograms per person. Wealthier countries also have greater levels of stocks in use – in buildings, vehicles and myriad other economic outputs – than developing countries, often by a factor of 3 to 10, wrote Gardner.

“Metals, of course, are a non-renewable resource,” noted Worldwatch president Robert Engelman. “A rise in production that matches economic growth is a key indicator of the global economy’s unsustainability. Ultimately, recovery and recycling will have to dominate metals supply, because mining and production cannot do so indefinitely.”

Progress on metals conservation is slow, however. According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Resource Panel, the share of discarded metal that is recycled – known as the “end-of-life recycling rate”– is above 50 percent for only 18 of 60 metals surveyed. “Higher recycling rates tend to be associated with materials that are used in large amounts in easily recoverable applications, such as car manufacturing,” said Gardner. “Metals with lower rates of recovery are often used in small quantities in complex products, such as electronics.”

The pattern of metal use varies between developing and industrialized countries. Developing countries generate less aluminum scrap from recycling in the early decades of development than in the mature stages of their economic growth.

Future policy decisions will need to support the creation of a circular economy that reuses and recycles materials and that remanufactures products to the extent possible. Germany, Japan, and China are countries already making a circular economy a priority.