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26 Apr, 2013

Asia’s Soaring Consumption Of Raw Materials Unsustainable, UN Warns


United Nations, Apr 24 2013 (UN News Centre) – The Asia-Pacific region, which has overtaken the rest of the world in consumption of raw materials as affluence and manufacturing increase, must boost its resource efficiency or risk losing ground in lifestyle, economic growth and environmental sustainability, according to a UN report released today.

From 1970-2008, consumption of construction minerals increased 13.4 times, metal ores and industrial minerals consumption 8.6, fossil fuels 5.4, and biomass 2.7 times, according to the report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), entitled, ‘Recent Trends in Material Flows and Resource Productivity in Asia and the Pacific.’

The report highlights the region’s inefficient use of resources as measured by material intensity – consumption of materials per dollar of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – as an area of serious concern. Currently, material intensity for Asia-Pacific is three that of times the rest of the world.

“Each dollar of GDP requires increasing amount of materials,” said Park Young-Woo, Director of the UNEP Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

The report found that the region is moving from biomass to a minerals-based economy, indicating that the most-populous countries like China and India are transitioning from agrarian to industrialized economies, UNEP reported.

According to figures cited, China is responsible for over 60 per cent of the region’s total domestic material consumption, and India for 14 per cent.

The rise in use of metal ores and industrial minerals use in India indicates that the country is entering a rapid acceleration phase in its transition to an industrialized economy, the UN agency notes.

Growing affluence and material intensity were the primary drivers of raw material consumption, and any attempts to regulate the industry would have to address both, the report stresses.

“The findings of the report conclude that countries in Asia and the Pacific face even greater challenges to make the transition of current economic growth patterns towards green growth, and to transform the economies into truly green economy, despite the strong efforts in development of policies and strategies by member countries,” said Mr. Park.

The report recommends the establishment a global harmonized database that shares material use data for all countries as an important step in helping policymakers and businesses anticipate resource issues, and to provide academia with reliable data to support decision makers with the policy relevant science.

In other reports released today, UNEP states that the soaring demand for metals necessitates more sophisticated recycling practices to address the challenges of increasingly mixed metal products and their negative environmental impacts.

“Global metal needs will be three to nine times larger than all the metals currently used in the world,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said on the launch of the report entitled, ‘Environmental Risks and Challenges of Anthropogenic Metals Flows and Cycles’ during a high-level dialogue on Resource Efficiency and Sustainable Management of Metals in Berlin.

“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,” he added.

A mobile phone, for example, can contain more than 40 elements, including base metals such as copper and tin and precious and platinum-group metals such as silver, gold and palladium.

Another report launched at the event, entitled, ‘Metal Recycling – Opportunities, Limits, and Infrastructure’ outlines improvements that should be made to metal recycling systems to meet current and future needs.

That report notes that the potential for recycling is enormous but that current a huge amount of electrical and electronic equipment waste is generated during recycling, estimated at 20 to 50 million tonnes, or three to seven kilograms per person, each year.

Among the recommendations in the report, the authors suggest better means of separating out elements for recycling and of optimizing recycling production to avoid inefficiencies throughout the process.