2. Closing the metals loop
One obvious way to become less reliant on scarce metals from foreign mining operations is to make better use of the metals which are already circulating in our economy. Metals can be recycled over and over again. As such, and in sharp contrast to fossil fuels, they are a good fit in a climate-neutral and circular economy.
Although some losses during the use and recycling of metals are inevitable, much higher recycling rates can be achieved than at present. Within the EU, only 65 per cent of the copper in discarded products currently enters the recycling loop (1), while the recycling rate for rare earths is less than one per cent – an outrage given their importance for the energy and digital transitions. Recyclability is often overlooked in the design of our most advanced devices.
Boosting the recycling of metals requires an increase in public research and investment. There is a need for new, energy efficient methods to separate metals which are mixed together, to recycle such alloys directly, and to reclaim small amounts of scarce metals from discarded devices. Public investments under the European Green Deal must guarantee that the knowledge gained gets out of the lab and into a state-of-the-art recycling infrastructure.