The consumption of most metals continues to rise following ever-increasing population growth, affluence and technological development. Sustainability considerations urge greater resource efficiency and retention of metals in the economy. We model the fate of a yearly cohort of 61 extracted metals over time and identify where losses are expected to occur through a life-cycle lens. We find that ferrous metals have the longest lifetimes, with 150 years on average, followed by precious, non-ferrous and specialty metals with 61, 50 and 12 years on average, respectively. Production losses are the largest for 15 of the studied metals whereas use losses are the largest for barium, mercury and strontium. Losses to waste management and recycling are the largest for 43 metals, suggesting the need to improve design for better sorting and recycling and to ensure longer-lasting products, in combination with improving waste-management practices. Compared with the United Nations Environmental Programme’s recycling statistics, our results show the importance of taking a life-cycle perspective to estimate losses of metals to develop effective circular economy strategies. We provide the dataset and model used in a machine-readable format to allow further research on metal cycles.
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Midpoint and endpoint characterization factors for mineral resource dissipation: methods and application to 6000 data sets
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The PhD research project of A.C.P. was financed by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) and the BRGM. We acknowledge the organizations (in particular, the Center for Industrial Ecology of Yale University and the US Geological Survey) and researchers that produced and published the data underlying this article. We also acknowledge the MaTrace model initially developed by S. Nakamura et al. and thank S. Pauliuk and N. Heeren for developing the open ODYM software framework.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Charpentier Poncelet, A., Helbig, C., Loubet, P. et al. Losses and lifetimes of metals in the economy. Nat Sustain 5, 717–726 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-022-00895-8
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