Try as we might, it's impossible to fashion wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles out of thin air. These technologies are complex, and many different materials go into their production. The problem is, a lot of the necessary metals aren't recycled at the end of their lives—and that could lead to shortages in the future, putting the entire clean technology sector at risk.
The news comes from a new UN report, which explains that under one-third of 60 recyclable metals have an end-of-life recycling rate above 50%. And 34 elements—many of which are crucial for clean technology—have recycling rates of less than 1%. This may not seem like a big deal now, but mined metals are a limited resource. As these materials become more scarce, we will see increases in land disruption, water impacts, energy use, and of course, cost.
In the case of rare earth metals (i.e. specialty metals like tellurium and selenium, which are used for ultra-efficient solar cells), there is no way to tell how close we are to shortages because we don't know how much of a supply we have.
"By failing to recycle metals and simply disposing of these kinds of metal, economies are foregoing important environmental benefits and increasing the possibility of shortages," explained Thomas Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology at Yale University, in a statement. "If we do not have these materials readily available at reasonable prices, a lot of modern technology simply cannot happen."
The solution: recycle more. This requires new product designs that make disassembly and metal separation easier, as well as better waste management and recycling structures. The UN is already attempting to increase metal recycling with an initiative that tracks e-waste disposal in developing countries. Once we have a better idea of where our electronic waste goes, we can work on recycling it—and according to the UN, recycling one million cell phones could recover 50 pounds of gold, 550 pounds of silver, 20 pounds of palladium, and 20,000 pounds of copper.