Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Scarcity as an Impetus for Change
As part of the 2nd International Conference on Research Frontiers in Chalcogen Cycle Science and Technology, we had the opportunity to sit in on numerous lectures regarding engineering processes for heavy metal removal and recovery. Although all presentations were excellent, I’d like to analyze the concept of scarcity, as presented by the keynote speaker.
Scarcity is a dynamic idea; a concept that appears tangible and measurable but may in fact be more elusive and complicated. Certain issues, such as the quantity of discovered reserves, the invention of substitute products, better recycling technologies can influence the perception of scarcity. Although the concept of scarcity may be difficult to define, its consequences can be more easily measured, through economic or social repercussions.
It is well known that metals, like any other nonrenewable resource, are being depleted at a rapid rate, a rate which is constantly increasing as population and consumer demand continues to rise. Metals are pervasive throughout all aspects of life, making comfort and convenience possible. Rare earth metals give us gadgets; uranium gives us power; aluminum gives us mobility.
As resources become depleted, materials become more expensive. Environmental and social pressure increase. Technology ‘advances.’ But at some point, these resources will be unavailable, making research and development of recycling methods, adequate material substitutions, means of resource conservation, and recovery technologies imperative.
Issues surrounding metals scarcity mirror those of water scarcity. These resources may be perceived as abundant, and so they are treated as such. Cell phones are built to be replaced every two years; landscaping is designed to require massive volumes of drinking water to sustain it. However, although there may be a substitute for aluminum, there is no substitute for water. Granted, water can be ‘created’ through reverse osmosis or other energy intensive technology, but there is always that tradeoff.
Personally, I don’t have much experience with metals and have never thought much about their disappearance. It never occurred to me that uranium would one day (projected 19 years) run out, making nuclear power obsolete, much like it seems crazy that on a planet with so much water, this resource could become scarce. However, this is, in fact, the case in many places.
The parallel between materials resources, energy, and water availability underlines the interdependence of environmental systems. Materials never really disappear from existence, but may change shape or location. Metals can be recovered from contaminated sites much like wastewater has its own set of resources quietly hiding within it. The difficulty and challenge lies in recovery these resources for a more sustainable closed loop exchange. It may also require a lifestyle shift away from the throw-away single use society that dominates today. In this sense, the perception of scarcity would be redefined, as materials would no longer be disappearing from the cycle, but could be revived and reused again and again.