PRICES UP, for the year ending June 1979, 47 percent; 59 percent; 87 percent; 44 percent; 30 percent; 41 percent. What prices do you think these are? The answer is neither fuel nor food -- two most widely cited causes of inflation. In fact, these show the increased costs (in order) of: copper; platinum; lead; nickel; molybdenum and zinc. For a variety of reasons -- including growing worldwide demand, costs of meeting enviornmental standards, price increases by foreign producers, and the costs of mining lower-grade ores -- metals have joined food and energy as an important contributor to the rising rate of inflation.
Price is not the only worry. With the OPEC experience as a vivid reminder, the source and volume of metal imports is (or should be) a cause for serious concern. In 1950, this country depended on imports to meet half or more of its needs for only four of the 13 basic industrial raw materials. Today imports account for more than half of nine of them. (The Soviet Union satisfies almost all of its needs for all 13.) The U.S. mineral trade deficit -- a relatively recent phenomenon -- is growing steadily, and one government study has predicted that it may reach $100 billion in 1979 dollars by the year 2000. South Africa and the Soviet Union figure prominently among the major mineral exporters and there are several other suppliers on whom it is uncomfortable to be dependent for moral, political or strategic reasons.
The similarities to the energy situation may not end there. Washington is not exactly crawling with people who are studying the need for a national minerals policy. But, among those who are, there is little doubt that this country is traveling down the same profligate road with regard to metals consumption that it has traversed on energy. Demand for metals and other minerals is enormous and constantly increasing. More important, much of this use is wasteful: Nearly three-quarters of the metals consumed in the United States are used just once and then thrown away.
Again, as it is with energy, there is great potential for savings from more efficient use. Price is beginning to alter wasteful practices, but so far the improvements amount only to a drop in the bucket. The Japanese have been importing and recycling scrapped U.S. cars for years: Only recently has it become attractive to do so in this country, and the rusting hulks that used to desecrate the Appalachian landscape have just about disappeared. A commerical chromium recovery plant, the first of its kind, has just been opened. Chromium is unusual in that there is no known substitute, and the United States must import virtually all its chromium supply. The new plant converts steel-mill waste (dust, grindings, etc.) into recycled alloys containing large amounts of chromium and nickel, molybdenum and iron as well. A welcome bonus from this and most other metal recyling processes is a substantial energy savings. It takes only about one half as much energy to process recycled steel as to produce steel from virgin ore.
In 25 years of studies and commissions, a metals policy has so far eluded Washington's grasp. It appears that the same inconclusive fate awaits the latest effort, a two-year undertaking ordered by President Carter involving more than a dozen federal agencies. You have to ask yourself what kind of pressures and costs and frights will be required to wake us up.