Anthropogenic Cycles of the Elements: A Critical Review

A cycle is the quantitative characterization of the flows of a specific material into, within, and from a given system. An anthropogenic elemental cycle can be static (for a point in time) or dynamic (over a time interval). The about 350 publications collected for this review contain a total of 1074 individual cycle determinations, 989 static and 85 dynamic, for 59 elements; more than 90% of the publications have appeared since 2000. The cycles are of varying quality and completeness, with about 80% at country- or territory-level, addressing 45 elements, and 5% at global-level, addressing 30 elements. Despite their limitations, cycles have often been successful in revealing otherwise unknown information. Most of the elements for which no cycles exist are radioactively unstable or are used rarely and in small amounts. For a variety of reasons, the anthropogenic cycles of only perhaps a dozen elements are well characterized. For all the others, with cycles limited or nonexistent, our knowledge of types of uses, lifetimes in those uses, international trade, losses to the environment, and rates of recycling is quite limited, thereby making attempts to evaluate resource sustainability particularly problematic.

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