Has the metal 'consumption' of consumers risen over the last, say 30 years (arbitrarily chosen number - anything on a similar scale would be interesting).

I'm interested in both the amount that is 'held' (this laptop, my knives and forks), and the amount that is thrown away/recycled.

  • 2
    Are you interested in (post-)industrial societies such as US / W.Europe; BRIC / BASIC; or the developing world? Global figures would hide the effect of industrialisation in China / India.
    – 410 gone
    May 27, 2013 at 10:45
  • Good point - I'm actually interested in the UK - but any individual country would be of interest...
    – Joe
    May 27, 2013 at 12:28
  • I'm a little unclear on your wording. Are you interested in things like pots, pans, and cars, or just disposable items? It seems a bit arbitrary to only be interested in one kind of metal use, but maybe you're trying to simply narrow the question for the Q+A format ... maybe a separate question about metal use in longer-life items is coming?
    – Nate
    May 27, 2013 at 21:57
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    Would an average annual nation-wide metal consumption per person be the kind of figure you're looking for? There are probably accessible figures on those things. May 27, 2013 at 23:42
  • 1
    You ask about 'metal' generally, or a particular metal, for example aluminium, iron, gold? Jun 1, 2013 at 10:49

3 Answers 3


Metal production compared to population

Our World in Data provides statistics on global annual primary production of metals:

Metal production over the long term, World

They also provide population data over the same time period. If we combine the two data sets, we can see the global per capita metal production:

Global per capita metal production

To answer your question about the last 30 years or so; the data shows that metal production per person declined slightly during the 1970s, but from the mid-1980s onward it has been growing.

Recycling rates

The United Nations Environment Programme published a report on Recycling Rates of Metals in 2011, which gives estimated global recycling rates. It's a comprehensive review of disparate data sources, so rates are given in ranges. Here's where each of the metals in the chart from Our World in Data fall:

  • Greater than 50%:
    • Gold
    • Tin
    • Nickel
    • Iron Ore
    • Lead
    • Zinc
    • Manganese
    • Silver
    • Copper
    • Aluminum
  • 10 to 25%
    • Tungsten

Note that Tungsten, with the lowest recycling rate, is also produced in the lowest quantity aside from gold.

Unfortunately, the UN does not provide historical data on recycling rates. However, given that recycling rates in general are increasing globally, it's safe to assume that metal recycling rates have also increased over time.

This means that while some primary production accounts for replacing metals that are not recycled, this "replacement factor" has decreased over time, meaning the increase in primary production is mostly related to increase in demand.

Change in demand for specific metals

I was curious about specific metals, so I put together this chart showing the per capita change since 1985 for each specific metal:

Change in per capital metal production since 1985

From this data, we can see that the growth is lead by:

  • Aluminum, used in almost every industry
  • Bauxite, a source of aluminum
  • Nickel, used for stainless steel but likely growing due to use in batteries
  • Lead, used in batteries

Are you talking in terms of use and disposal per person, or life cycle of metal?

The difference being are you interested in how much metal a person consumes and disposes of? Or how much metal gets to land fill and averaging that out over the population?

Not all metal disposed of will make it to land fill.

I suspect you're question is the first (disposal per person), which I would say (without researching figures directly) yes it has gone up.

The reason being, in general, society is consuming (and disposing of) more, which would imply that the metals contained within are also being disposed of more.


  • The average consumer changes cell phone every 2 years - 30 years ago, we didn't even have cell phones.
  • Similarly, computers last about 3 to 5 years, they also didn't exist 30 years ago.

These two items until recently, largely went to landfill when done.

Have you tried the Worldbank Databank - they may have some overall stats of metal consumed by nation. ( http://data.worldbank.org )

Maybe also The World Beaurea of Metal Statistics - http://www.world-bureau.com/


Depends on how you count "consumption". For example , is the 50+ tons of steel in the typical mono-pod for each commercial windmill averaged for the people in that electric grid, or for that country, or for whole earth ? Also the great majority of structural metals are recycled ; is that deducted from the "consumed" ?

  • 2
    This looks more like a comment than an actual answer.
    – THelper
    Sep 27, 2018 at 9:43

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