Rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation caused by metal production must be urgently addressed, a new report from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) warns.
Demand for metals is expected to rise tenfold as emerging economies adopt similar technologies and lifestyles to richer nations.
1.75 billion mobile phones were sold in 2012, of which 53.5% were smartphones, which use over 40 variants of metal. The average tablet or Apple iPad weighs 650g and contains 1.3g of tin-rich solder.
UNEP says the recycling of electronic equipment has to be radically increased to ensure mining and refining operations around the world do not get out of control.
It estimates that 20-50 million tonnes of electronic waste is produced annually, equating to three to seven kilogrammes per person.
“As populations in emerging economies adopt similar technologies and lifestyles to those currently used in OECD countries, global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
“A far more sophisticated approach is urgently needed to address the challenges of recycling complex products, which contain a broad variety of interlinked metals and materials,” he added.
“Product designers need to ensure that materials such as rare earth metals in products ranging from solar panels and wind turbine magnets to mobile phones can still be recovered easily when they reach the end of their life.”
As Steiner suggests, the issue is particularly relevant for the renewables sector, which needs a regular supply of metals and rare earths to survive.
Sourcing these sustainably is a key test of the environmental integrity for wind and solar. The use of metals and their compounds cause local impacts from mining and use 7-8% of the global energy supply.
Recyling uses less energy than extracting metals from the earth, but it can be complicated and costly. UNEP says mobile phones contain more than 40 elements, including copper, tin, platinum, silver and gold.
Electronic waste in Europe is expected to increase 4% annually, three times faster than other forms of rubbish, a level which German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier admits is unacceptable.
“Our aim must be to beak the raw materials spiral by using materials more consciously,” he said.
“In Germany, raw materials are already applied much more efficiently than ten years ago. But we can achieve even more: By 2020 we want to double raw materials efficiency compared to 1994 levels.”
Metal supply chains are coming under increasing scrutiny for human rights and environmental abuses.
Last week Samsung admitted metal for its mobile phones could come from Indonesia’s Bangka island, an area which has been implicated in child labour, deforestation and poor working conditions.
In response to an investigation by Friends of the Earth and the Guardian the company sent an email sent to customers explaining that “some of the tin that we use for manufacturing our products does originate from this area”.
The Guardian reports that: “Bangka and its sister island Belitung together produce 90% of the world’s tin, which is used primarily as solder in consumer electronics for products like smartphones, tablets and mobiles.”
Earlier this month the EU announced plans for new laws that could mean companies have to report on a range of environmental and social factors alongside their financial results.
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