Metals are ubiquitous – they are all around us – and
provide a foundation upon which our economies are built. Economic development
is deeply coupled with the use of metals. During the 20th century the production has increased exponentially, and the variety
of metal applications in society has grown rapidly. In addition to mass
applications such as steel in buildings, copper in wires and aluminium in
airplanes, more and more metals are required for innovative technologies such
as the use of rare earth elements in renewable energy systems.
Worldwide, and in particular in emerging economies,
the demand for metals is rapidly increasing. The continued increase in metals
demand and use over the 20th century has led to substantial social, economic
and environmental challenges. Mining activities expand but easily accessible
deposits are becoming scarce. As a result, the supply of critical metals is
under an increasing pressure. This implies recycling, also referred to as “urban
mining”, is of growing importance in generating raw materials. In the end,
the only really effective solution to the metals challenge may be to move
towards a circular economy.
To be able to do that, information is needed
on metal stocks in society, their size and residence time, as well as on the
technologies that are available to recover these metals when the stocks become
obsolete. This course, based on the reports of the Global Metals Flows Working
Group of UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP), investigates the nature of
the metals challenge and the conditions and the consequences of the way out: a
circular economy for metals.