Evaluation of the Metals Industry’s Position on Recycling and its Implications for Environmental Emissions

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A healthy debate on the treatment of metals recycling in the life cycle assessment (LCA) community has persisted for more than a decade. While no clear consensus across stakeholder groups has emerged, the metals industry has endorsed a set of recycling “facts” that support a single approach, end-of-life recycling, for evaluating the environmental benefits of metals recycling. In this article we draw from research conducted in several disciplines and find that three key tenets of the metals industry capture the theoretical potential of metals recycling from a metallurgical standpoint rather than reflecting observed behavior.  We then discuss the implications of these conclusions on environmental emissions from metals production and recycling. Evidence is provided that, contrary to the position of the metals industry, metals are not necessarily recycled at high rates, are recycled only a small number of times before final disposal, and are sometimes limited in recycling potential by the economics of contaminant removal. The analysis concludes that metal recycled from old scrap largely serves as an imperfect substitute for primary metal. As a result, large-scale displacement of primary production and its associated environmental emissions is currently limited to a few specific instances.

end of life
industrial ecology
life cycle assessment (LCA)
recycling allocation
Publication Type: 
Journal Article
Journal of Industrial Ecology
Date Published: 
June 2012
Persistent URL: 
DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-9290.2012.00483.x
Full Citation: 
McMillan, Colin, Steven J. Skerlos and Gregory A. Keoleian. (2012) “Evaluation of the Metals Industry’s Position on Recycling and its Implications for Environmental Emissions.” Journal of Industrial Ecology. 16(3): 324-333.
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