Global Metals Production Recovers


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Worldwatch Institute assesses growth of worldwide metals production and the challenges of conservation

Washington, D.C.—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 steep rise in metals production of the past decade, 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,” says 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.”

The surge in metals production in the past decade is spurred by robust economic output in advanced developing countries, according to the report. “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,” says 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, writes Gardner.

“Metals, of course, are a non-renewable resource,” notes 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.”

Given the combination of longstanding metals demand in industrialized countries and surging demand in developing countries, conservation policies will be needed as some metals approach the limits of available supply. Researchers conclude that a potential future global population of 10 billion people could consume 1.7 trillion kilograms of copper total, greater than the estimated global in-ground stocks of 1.6 trillion kilograms.

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,” says Gardner. “Metals with lower rates of recovery are often used in small quantities in complex products, such as electronics.”

Many of the metals produced and consumed worldwide end up in landfills, making recovery difficult. Stocks of aluminum in U.S. landfills are equivalent to 43 percent of the aluminum in use in the U.S. economy. And landfill stocks of steel amount to about 20 percent of all steel in use in the United States. “Recovery of these landfill-based resources is not yet economically feasible, but it might be one day,” says Gardner.

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.

Further highlights from the report

  • Global extraction growth rates for copper, zinc, nickel, tin, and platinum averaged 3.4 percent annually over the past few decades, which implies a doubling of extracted material volumes every 20 years.
  • By one estimate, 97.5 percent of all copper produced worldwide in the last 1,000 years has been produced since 1900.
  • China ranks in the top five producers globally for 8 of the 10 most common metals.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that U.S. landfills hold enough steel to build 11,000 Golden Gate Bridges.
  • Most of the projected 2.7-fold increase in world aluminum consumption between 2006 and 2025 is expected to come from developing countries.

Purchase the full report here


Notes to Editors:

For a complimentary copy of this report, please contact Supriya Kumar at skumar@worldwatch.org.