Editorial Feature

Metal Recycling and the Circular Economy

Metals recycling is a critical component of the circular economy, a concept aimed at reducing waste, conserving resources, and minimising environmental impacts. As the world is confronted with the challenges of resource scarcity and environmental degradation, metal recycling has gained increasing relevance and importance. In this article, we will delve into the world of metal recycling, exploring its significance, recent trends, technical aspects, and the latest research.

Metal Recycling, Circular Economy

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The Relevance and Importance of Metal Recycling

Metals are essential materials in our modern society, used in everything from infrastructure and transportation to electronics and consumer goods. However, the extraction and production of metals often come at a significant environmental cost, such as habitat destruction, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, whereby metals recycling offers a sustainable alternative by reusing and repurposing metals, thus reducing the need for virgin materials.

Furthermore, metals recycling conserves valuable natural resources, such as iron, aluminium, copper, and rare earth elements. By recycling metals, we extend their lifespan and decrease the demand for mining, preserving ecosystems and reducing the carbon footprint associated with extraction. Metals recycling also decreases the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators, which therefore alleviates the burden on waste management systems and minimises environmental pollution.

In addition, the energy required to extract and refine metals from ore is considerably higher than that needed to recycle them. Metals recycling can save up to 95% of the energy compared to primary production, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The benefits of metals recycling are not limited to the environment but are also economical, as the metals recycling industry creates jobs and stimulates local economies. The metals recycling sector not only provides employment opportunities but also generates revenue through the sale of recycled materials.

Emerging Trends in Metal Recycling and the Circular Economy

Recent years have witnessed several notable trends and developments in metals recycling:

Advanced Sorting Technologies: Innovations in sensor-based sorting technologies and artificial intelligence have improved the efficiency and accuracy of metal separation, hence facilitating the metal recycling processes to be more precise and cost-effective.

Urban Mining: The concept of urban mining for metals recycling involves extracting valuable metals from electronic waste, old buildings, and infrastructure. This approach reduces the need for traditional mining and helps manage the growing e-waste problem. With a CAGR projected to grow by 13.12% between 2021 and 2027, urban mining is set to play an important part in the global move towards sustainability.

Circular Supply Chains: Manufacturers are increasingly embracing circular supply chains, where materials from metals recycling are integrated into their production processes. Such a trend in metals recycling promotes closed-loop systems, reducing waste and enhancing sustainability, and is only looking to increase. A survey conducted by Gartner in 2022 reported that 74% of supply chain leaders were expecting profit increases by implementing circular economic principles between 2022 and 2025.

Technical Insights into Metal Recycling

Metals recycling is a multifaceted process, marrying the intricacies of materials science with cutting-edge technology to extract value from discarded metal materials, whereby this ingenious recycling process is not merely a routine endeavour but a meticulous orchestration of metallurgical principles.

At its inception, metal recycling requires sorting, which hinges on the separation of various metals from complex sources, such as discarded appliances, vehicles, and industrial scrap. The sorting process of metal recycling relies on techniques like magnetic separation, eddy current separation, and optical sorting, each catering to specific metal types.

In metals recycling, once the metals are sorted, they undergo a transformation through a sequence of thermal and chemical processes. Ferrous metals, predominantly iron and steel, are melted in electric arc or induction furnaces, where they are refined and alloyed to meet specific quality standards of metals recycling. Non-ferrous metals like aluminium, copper, and brass undergo a similar crucible, where they are smelted and cast into new forms, ready for reuse.

The purification of these metals in metals recycling is a crucial step involving processes such as electrolysis for aluminium or pyrometallurgical refining for copper. Such techniques ensure that impurities are removed, enhancing the metals' integrity and performance.

The result of these processes of metals recycling is an array of recycled metals, each with distinct properties, ready to re-enter the manufacturing cycle. Such metals, often combined in various alloys, find applications in industries ranging from construction and automotive to aerospace and electronics.

In essence, metals recycling embodies both the elegance of materials science and the pragmatism of sustainability. It showcases how human ingenuity and technology can give rise to a circular economy, where the life cycle of metals stretches far beyond their initial use, creating a more resource-efficient and environmentally responsible world.

Recent Studies and Research Findings

Recent studies have reinforced the importance of metals recycling in achieving sustainability goals. This is most prominent regarding the recycling of lithium-ion batteries found in electronics such as smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles, which is becoming increasingly more vital as global mining operations cannot meet the demands of an ever-growing need for lithium and other metals that powers such technologies.

One such study of metals recycling pioneers the recycling of lithium-ion batteries. The study reported a more sophisticated recycling process, described by experts as an elegant method, to rejuvenate the cathode - the most expensive component of lithium-ion batteries, and is important in delivering the required voltage. Remarkably, the study revealed that batteries manufactured using this novel cathode-recycling technique perform on par with those featuring a brand-new cathode. In fact, batteries incorporating the recycled cathode exhibit superior longevity and faster charging capabilities. Kang Xu, an electrochemist from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory not involved in the study, commends the team's distinctive and impressive approach and its successful demonstration.

Conclusion

Metals recycling plays a pivotal role in the transition towards a more sustainable and circular economy. It conserves resources, reduces energy consumption, and mitigates environmental impacts. With emerging trends and technological advancements, the future of metals recycling looks promising. By embracing these practices and supporting further research, we can contribute to a greener and more sustainable world.

The Circular Economy in the Chemical Sector

References and Further Reading 

The rise of circularity How the GCC is transforming from the inside for the outside Metals and Mining [Internet]. Available from: https://www.pwc.com/m1/en/publications/the-rise-of-circularity/documents/the-rise-of-circularity-metals-mining.pdf

Hagelüken C, Goldmann D. Recycling and circular economy—towards a closed loop for metals in emerging clean technologies. Mineral Economics. 2022 May 12.

Sa P de, Korinek J. Resource efficiency, the circular economy, sustainable materials management and trade in metals and minerals [Internet]. OECD iLibrary. Paris; 2021. Available from: https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/trade/resource-efficiency-the-circular-economy-sustainable-materials-management-and-trade-in-metals-and-minerals_69abc1bd-en

Author G. The Environmental and Financial Benefits of Recycling Metal [Internet]. greenerideal.com. Available from: https://greenerideal.com/news/the-environmental-and-financial-benefits-of-recycling-metal/

This “smart bin” sorts recycling so you don’t have to [Internet]. euronews. 2022. Available from: https://www.euronews.com/next/2022/09/13/this-ai-powered-smart-bin-sorts-recycling-by-itself

Markets R and. Global Urban Mining Market Outlook Report 2022-2027 Featuring Key Players - Umicore, Johnson Matthey, Materion Corporation, Boliden Group, and Sims Limited [Internet]. GlobeNewswire News Room. 2023 [cited 2023 Oct 7]. Available from: https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2023/01/16/2589013/0/en/Global-Urban-Mining-Market-Outlook-Report-2022-2027-Featuring-Key-Players-Umicore-Johnson-Matthey-Materion-Corporation-Boliden-Group-and-Sims-Limited.html

Closing the loop with circular economy logistics [Internet]. www.maersk.com. Available from: https://www.maersk.com/insights/sustainability/circular-economy-logistics

Gartner Survey Shows 74% of Supply Chain Leaders Expect Circular Economy to Increase Profits Through 2025 [Internet]. Gartner. Available from: https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2022-09-28-gartner-survey-shows-74-percent-of-supply-chain-leaders-expect-circular-economy-to-increase-profits-through-2025

Wilkerson J. Recycled Lithium-Ion Batteries Can Perform Better Than New Ones [Internet]. Scientific American. 2022. Available from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/recycled-lithium-ion-batteries-can-perform-better-than-new-ones/

Ma X, Chen M, Zheng Z, Bullen D, Wang J, Harrison C, et al. Recycled cathode materials enabled superior performance for lithium-ion batteries. Joule [Internet]. 2021 Oct 16; Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2542435121004335?via%3Dihub

How Does Metal Recycling Work? | Romco Metals [Internet]. Available from: https://romcometals.com/how-does-metal-recycling-work/

Kio PN, Anumba CJ, Ali AK. Circular Economy Trends – Potential Role of Emerging Technologies. IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science. 2022 Nov 1;1101(6):062005.

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Chi Cheng

Written by

Chi Cheng

Having graduated in Pharmacology BSc (Hons), followed by the completion of a Master of Science in Biomedical and Molecular Sciences, Chi’s interests spans widely across many areas of scientific enquiry within the life sciences and beyond. This has been demonstrated with his successful completion of modules relating to pharmacology, neuroscience, organic chemistry, biomedical science, as well as animal and plant biology, during his academic pursuits.

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