In its Vision2050 report, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) notes that in just 40 years, 30% more people will be living on this planet. In order to ensure that this population of 9 billion lives well, and within the limits of the planet, WBCSD developed a pathway towards sustainability based on the following nine elements:
- people’s values,
- human development,
- energy & power,
- mobility, and
Zinc is uniquely positioned as one of the few resources that can contribute meaningfully in each of these areas.
IZA understands that environment and sustainability programs are integral to the future of the zinc industry and it is committed to contributing scientifically sound facts in response to societal concerns and market trends.
Understanding the environmental footprint of zinc starts with documenting the resource requirements and environmental releases associated with upstream metal production operations, but it also involves understanding the impacts and the benefits of using zinc during other stages in the product life cycle. These benefits can arise in use (e.g. extending the life of steel products) and through end-of-life recycling (e.g. by utilizing recycled zinc to create new products). In order to develop this information, IZA launched the Zinc for Life program that resulted in the first global life cycle assessment (LCA) for special high-grade zinc.
In 2014 IZA completed an updated zinc LCA incorporating the most recent data from Member companies, and, more importantly, an expanded geographic range and percentage of global production. Results for the principle categories show a 20% or better reduction in impacts related to global warming, energy demand, and environmental emissions from the prior LCA. More information on IZA sustainability programs is available here.
Zinc is essential for all living things and plays a key role in numerous aspects of cellular metabolism. It is required for the catalytic activity of approximately 100 enzymes and it plays a role in immune function, protein synthesis, wound healing, DNA synthesis, and cell division. Zinc also supports normal growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. A daily intake of zinc is required to maintain a steady state because the body has no specialized zinc storage system.
Zinc deficiency is an enormous problem impacting an estimated 2 billion people worldwide. Children under five years of age are affected most suffering from retarded growth and development and high susceptibility to infectious diseases due to a poor performing immune system. An estimated 450,000 children between the ages of one and five die each year due to complications arising due to early childhood zinc deficiency. Even in areas where zinc deficiency is uncommon, there are still groups at higher risk such as the elderly, pregnant and lactating women and vegetarians, among others.
In addition to being a nutritional supplement, zinc is also considered a ‘life saving commodity’ by the United Nations and is the only promoted adjunct treatment to oral rehydration salts (ORS) for childhood diarrhea episodes. Diarrhea remains a leading cause of death globally among children under five years of age, accounting for 9% of child mortality, second only to pneumonia. Zinc + ORS is proven to reduce the duration and severity of diarrhea, and to prevent subsequent episodes. In addition to being effective and safe, it is also inexpensive and has been touted as one of the “best buys” in child health. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and others have strong outreach programs aimed specifically at including zinc on national Essential Medicines Lists and incorporating zinc as part of the routine public sector care offered to children with diarrhea.
The zinc industry has entered into a variety of partnerships with Governments and NGOs to fund critical child health and diarrheal treatment programs. IZA is supporting UNICEF through its Zinc Saves Kids initiative and also working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on zinc deficiency programs in India. IZA member companies are involved in similar partnerships through the Mining Compact for Child Health and other programs.
In today’s world, population growth, urbanization, social and economic development and even demands for a green economy are all contributing to an increase in demand for zinc. Within the metal and mining sector, zinc is relatively modest when compared to say, steel, but the two metals are closely linked – especially in the major markets of construction, automotive and appliances as zinc servers the critical role of protecting steel from corrosion. According to the World Corrosion Organization, the estimated cost of corrosion to all the world’s economies is $2.2 trillion USD ($2,200,000,000,000) annually. This worldwide cost of corrosion is currently in the same order of magnitude as the cost to produce and distribute food worldwide. The difference is that the public is somewhat aware of issues related to hunger and the cost of food, but totally unaware of the cost of corrosion today and its effect on sustainability of our infrastructures in the future. Today, over 50% of the zinc consumed each year is for the purpose of reducing the cost of corrosion (galvanizing).
The zinc industry also touches many interests including governments, investors, contractors and suppliers, service providers, Indigenous Peoples and their organizations, civil society organizations, academia and research institutions and downstream users, among others. These sectors also provide employment and economic growth opportunities, as does the zinc industry itself. The World Steel Association, for example, notes that the steel industry employs more than 2 million people directly around the world, with a further 2 million contractors and 4 million in supporting industries.
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. Nutrition security means access by all people at all times to the adequate utilization and absorption of nutrients in food, in order to be able to live a healthy and active life. Zinc fertilizers contribute to food and nutrition security by:
- Providing a key micronutrient required for the growth and health of all plants;
- Maintaining an optimal balance of available zinc for plant growth;
- Increasing yields to ensure food production keeps pace with population and income growth and hunger reduction objectives;
- Maximizing nutrient uptake of crops to address human zinc deficiency;
- Maximizing agricultural productivity without increasing land surface use;
- Addressing zinc deficiencies that undermine both public health and economic growth.
It is estimated that in the next 50 years, farmers will have to produce more food than was produced in the last 10,000 years combined. Most of this will have to come from increasing production on existing farmland requiring continual improvement of today’s farming techniques. This means higher crop yields, better incomes, and more sustainable land, air and water management and zinc fertilizers will be a major part of the solution to making this happen.
The zinc industry, through the Zinc Nutrient Initiative, is partnering with farmers, agronomists, scientists and governments to share knowledge, develop policy support and further innovations for zinc fertilizers to enable farmers around the world to grow more on their land and provide food and nutrition for all.
Galvanized steel framing studs, as well as electric transmission, telephone and sign poles are highly sustainable replacements for their wooden counterparts. Not only do they require less maintenance and offer longer service life, but according to a Life Cycle Stressor-Effects Assessment (LCSEA) conducted by the International Iron and Steel Institute, using galvanized steel studs in place of wood studs would result in a 100-fold reduction in land area eco-system disruption when building an equivalent number of single-family homes. Or worded differently, habitat depletion realized from steel framing production and use is less than one percent of that for wood. A similar case can be made when comparing galvanized steel utility and sign poles with their wood counter parts.
Zinc fertilizers can also help mitigate deforestation by significantly increasing crop health and crop yields. Growing more on smaller tracts of land conserves natural habitats and forests from being converted into farmland.
Energy and Power:
Sustainability considerations have already brought about a more diversified blend of fuels. As a result, the materials needed to generate energy are also changing. A growing portion of energy now comes from renewable and alternative fuels with implications for zinc and other metals. For example, the 25% reduction in Primary Energy Demand realized in the 2014 LCA for primary zinc was accompanied by a 22% increase in the use of renewable energy resources (hydro, wind and solar). Furthermore, wind and solar technologies, require significantly more steel than other energy sources.
Time in service becomes a critical factor in the economic viability of these installations. Zinc coatings (galvanizing, thermal spray and zinc-rich paints) significantly extend the service life of windmills, for example, and also greatly limit costly maintenance and downtime caused by corrosion, especially in hostile near-shore and off-shore environments.
Zinc also plays a critical role in solar energy. Galvanized steel is the material of choice for the structures that support and align solar panels, while zinc is also a component of the solar cells themselves. Researchers using thin layers of zinc oxide have recently fabricated the highest efficiency solar cells ever created.
Greater use of hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear power means increased demand for metal catalysts such as zinc and platinum. With regard to fuel cells, zinc’s very high energy potential has made it a leading candidate in a range of fuel cell and battery designs for grid storage and micro-grid generation. Additionally, nickel zinc batteries have been developed for use in hybrid electric vehicles, while zinc-air has been demonstrated across a range of electric vehicles. Researchers at Stanford University have identified zinc-air as a next generation replacement for lithium ion due to its far higher energy density and lower cost.
Due to their intrinsic properties, metals are widely used in the building and construction sector. Zinc sheet and zinc-coated steel sheet are excellent materials for cladding, roofing, window frames, rain-water collection systems, heating equipment and counter tops. Brass and zinc diecastings are used extensively in plumbing, builder’s hardware and many other applications. Zinc is equally at home in old and historic buildings as well as in new, modern architecture. Zinc building components are weatherproof, corrosion resistant and immune to the harmful effects of UV rays, ensuring a very long service life without degradation.
In addition to durability, zinc coated steel framing can bear higher loads with less material than dimensional lumber. This imparts a high degree of design flexibility but also saves considerably on material usage.
When a building reaches the end of its life, a considerable proportion of its zinc-containing products can be directly re-used and the functional life of these parts can be extended. When a zinc-containing building product eventually reaches the end of its life, it can be fully recycled. Today, more than 95% of the zinc products used in buildings are collected at end-of-life. This collected zinc can be recycled without loss of quality. Because metallic bonds are restored upon re-solidification, metals continually recover their original performance properties, even after multiple recycling loops. This allows them to be used again and again for the same application. By contrast, the performance characteristics of most non-metallic materials degrade after recycling.
Zinc coatings play a key role in public transportation and infrastructure by extending the life of steel used in bridge rails and support beams, railway tracks and public transportation hubs and terminals. Zinc also extends the life of, and time between maintenance of concrete bridges, car parks and piers by protecting the steel reinforcing bar contained within from early failure by corrosion. Zinc also protects the lighter and stronger next generation steels that enable vehicle designs with greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Through its Galvanized Autobody Partnership (GAP), IZA is working with the global steel industry and auto manufacturers on next generation steels to enable automakers to produce steel-based vehicles that meet targets of increasing the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) in the US from the current 29 miles per gallon to 54.5 mpg in 2025 and reducing CO2 emissions from 160g per kilometer today to a maximum of 95g by 2020 in the European Union.
Zinc oxide is an ingredient in modern low rolling resistant tires and zinc batteries are poised to be a game-changing technology in future electric vehicles.
Growth brings economic prosperity and welfare – but also a continuously growing demand for materials. Thus, a trade-off arises between societal benefits and the depletion of natural resources. In order to make this growth sustainable, the materials used need to be either renewable or recyclable. The transition to a ‘closed loop’ or circular economy involves adopting a systems approach of understanding the performance attributes of materials and products throughout entire product chain; from raw material to use of the finished product and further to the end-of-life management.