By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Waste not, want not.

Grasburg gold and copper mine in Papua, Indonesia

How many of us heard this little saying from our parents during our sloppy, wanton, wasteful childhoods?

I’d say the percentage who received this advice was higher than the current rate of recycling for all plastics, which comes in at an unimpressive 8 percent, according to an article in Scientific American about how we’re failing to recycle many raw resources, such as metals and petroleum-derived plastics.

The inspiration for the article was a survey that found many of our precious metals, nearly all of which are recyclable, are not ending up in closed-loop recovery systems. That is, they’re not being reclaimed.

My mother would not be pleased. Probably not yours either. This is a much more egregious oversight than tossing a half-eaten peanut butter sandwich.

The survey authors, whose work was published this month in Science, argued that the world must do a better job if it wants to retain the use of these finite elements and drastically lower the energy we expend to obtain them.

As you probably realize if you take your food and beverage cans to the curb in a recycling bin, a good bit of steel and aluminum is recycled. Copper, nickel and lead are recycled too. But while nearly 100 percent of lead is recycled because it’s such a hazard and subject to special regulation, only a little more than half of the other metals are recycled.

That’s pretty surprising, considering that metals can be reused many times over.

One example of particular reckless disregard from the Scientific American article concerns neodymium, a rare earth metal that’s used in magnets in hybrid cars and wind turbines. Nearly 16,000 metric tons of neodymium was used in 2007. At the same time, an estimated 1,000 metric tons of this metal reached the end of its life in a variety of products, but “little to none of that material is currently being recycled.”

It gets worse. Mining waste — the slurry, tailings or rock leftovers  of the mining process — is 10 times greater than municipal waste in North America.

Coal and other big mining needs contribute mightily, producing massive waste streams. But so do the rare metals that are increasingly used in smart phones and solar panels, notes David Biello, author of the Scientific American piece, which you should read because there are many more aspects to this issue than I’ve highlighted here.

But let’s end on a bright note. Researchers are not unaware of this problem, and multi-national companies packing these metals into electronics share our public interest in conserving them. We need the earth to be treated more kindly. They need to assure a safe and affordable supply of components. We want less waste and toxic runoff and leaching; they want their business to thrive, without pollution issues that could mushroom into liabilities.

Take Dow Chemical. I know, it’s not who I usually think of either when it comes to sustainability. But they could blow it out of the park, business-wise, if they found a cleaner, cheaper way to make solar panels.

And so they’re working on that.

This week scientists at the American Chemical Society meeting announced a collaboration between Dow Chemical and Cal Tech scientists that appears on target to produce photovoltaic panels using copper and zinc, in place of indium, gallium and other rare metals.

Let’s just hope they make their panels easy to disassemble, so that the copper and zinc can be recycled.

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