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.

More recycling

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.

mobile phone and metals

Dissolvable circuit boards

British start-up Jiva Materials has
developed a bio-based printed
circuit board for electronics. Once
discarded, the circuit board can be
delaminated by immersing it in hot
water. This makes it easier to
separate the electronic components,
which contain a variety of metals, for
recycling. The natural fibres from
the circuit board can be composted
and returned to the nutrient cycle. (2)

In parallel, an extension of the EU’s ecodesign legislation should oblige producers to design for recycling. It should no longer be possible to put a product on the market without knowing how to recover its parts and materials. This requires a constant dialogue between producers and recyclers. Information on the composition and disassembly of devices should be accessible through digital product passports. (3) Toxic materials must be phased out. Ecodesign requirements should include a minimum percentage of recycled content in devices. This is paramount to making recycling more profitable and to spur innovation. (4) Without guaranteed demand, secondary metals risk being out-competed by virgin metals, the price of which rarely reflects the environmental and social costs of production.

Recycling

Boosting copper recycling

Eight large energy, telecoms, and
transport infrastructure operators
in the Netherlands have joined
forces to phase out the use of
virgin copper for installations and
cables by 2030. They also plan
to make their
unused copper
assets available for recycling.
These moves stimulate both
the demand for and supply of
secondary copper. (5)

Stricter legislation on producers’ responsibility for discarded devices should boost collection and recycling, preventing scarce metals from being downcycled to lower-quality products or landfilled. At present, less than 40 per cent of e-waste is recycled in the EU. (6) A substantial part of Europe’s metal scrap, discarded electronics, and end-of-life vehicles is exported to Asia and Africa. This often amounts to environmental dumping. Recycling within the EU would result in less pollution and more security of supply. The increased availability of recycled metals would also facilitate the domestic production of batteries, magnets, and solar panels. The EU needs to work on a more comprehensive waste export ban, with better enforcement.

Not enough in stock

However, recycling cannot satisfy Europe’s immediate need for metals. (7) There is simply not enough lithium, cobalt, or rare earths circulating in our economy at present, let alone available for recycling, to meet the demands of the energy and digital transitions. Even if it were possible to collect together all of the lithium consumed in the EU over the past decade for full recycling by 2030, this would not cover even a single year of electric vehicle battery production. (8) Green NGO Transport & Environment expects that by 2030, only six per cent of the lithium required for new electric vehicle batteries will be obtainable from recycled European electric vehicle batteries. (9) Even if we choose a future with fewer and smaller cars (10), we would still need virgin lithium; the same applies to cobalt and rare earths.

Besides recycling, there are other circular strategies which can lead to a more efficient use of metals. These include reuse and repair. Electric vehicle batteries that are replaced due to loss of capacity, for instance, can be repurposed for a second life as energy storage for solar or wind farms. Prolonging the lifetime of devices and giving consumers the right to repair also reduces the demand for metals.

Digitalisation

Repairability score

The French government is aiming to increase the share of broken electronic devices that are repaired from 40 to 60 per cent in five years. As of this year, the manufacturers of five product categories including smartphones and laptops are obliged to label their products with a repairability score. It tells consumers how easy it is to repair the device that they are considering buying. (11) Several manufacturers have already taken steps to improve the repairability of their products. (12) The Spanish and Belgian governments intend to adopt similar laws to combat the prevailing ‘throwaway culture’, while the Greens in the European Parliament are campaigning for an EU-wide mandatory repairability score. (13)

Substitution

A further strategy to decrease supply risks and avoid depletion is the substitution of scarce metals by more common materials. An example is the replacement of copper by aluminium, the third most abundant element in Earth’s crust, in certain wires and cables. Similar to recycling, substitution merits a public research offensive, but it is no silver bullet. Since many metals have unique properties, their alternatives may be less effective. Furthermore, in practice, substitution may well involve simply swapping one scarce metal for another, be that in an economic, physical, or geopolitical sense.

e-car and metals

Dilemmas of substitution

Electric vehicle motors contain either electromagnets or permanent magnets. While the latter require rare earths, which are geopolitically scarce, the former need more copper, which could be depleted within a century.
The cobalt in electric vehicle batteries can be substituted by nickel, which has a lower supply risk than cobalt as no single country dominates provision
. (14) However, at the current rate of extraction, nickel could be depleted before cobalt. (15)
Both the cobalt and the nickel in batteries can be replaced by phosphate, but this mineral is an essential nutrient for all life with no substitute in food production. The world’s known reserves of phosphate rock could be depleted within a century. (16)

The steps we take today towards a circular economy will enable us, in the long run, to minimise our demand for virgin metals and preserve ores for future generations. The EU must complete the energy transition by 2040. The digitalisation of our lives and societies has, or at least should have, its limits. In the meantime, however, we are forced to face up to the challenges posed by metal mining.

Footnotes

Further viewing

Alicia Valero, Batteries, recycling and the limits of a circular economy Afspelen op YouTube
Mashable, Recycling rare earth magnets from the urban mine Afspelen op YouTube
Logo Green European Foundation

Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), the Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

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