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 fit well in a carbon-neutral and circular economy.

More recycling

Although some losses during the use and recycling of metals are inevitable, much higher recycling rates can be attained than at present. Within the EU, a mere 65 per cent of copper in disposed products currently enters the recycling loop. (1) 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 overlooked in the design of our most advanced devices.

Boosting the recycling of metals requires stepping up public research and investments. There is a need for new methods to separate metals which are mixed together, to recycle alloys directly and to reclaim small amounts of scarce metals from discarded devices in an energy efficient way. Public investments must make sure that the knowledge moves out of the lab into a state-of-the-art recycling infrastructure.


Dissolvable circuit board

British start-up Jiva has developed
a bio-based printed circuit board for
electronics. Once discarded, the
circuit board can be delaminated by
immersing it into 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 food chain. (2)

In parallel, an extension of the EU’s ecodesign legislation should oblige producers to design for recycling. This requires a constant dialogue with recyclers. Information about the composition of devices and the methods for dismantling them 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 make recycling more profitable and to spur innovations. (4) Without an assured demand, secondary metals risk being out-competed by virgin metals, whose environmental and social costs are rarely reflected in the price.


Boosting copper recycling

Eight large operators of energy,
telecom and transport
infrastructure in the Netherlands
have joined forces to end the
use of virgin copper for
installations and cables by 2030.
Also, they want to make their

unused copper assets available
for recycling. These moves
stimulate both the demand for
and the supply of secondary
copper. (5)

Stricter legislation on producers’ responsibility for discarded devices should boost collection and recycling, preventing scarce metals from being downcycled or landfilled. At the moment, not even 40 per cent of e-waste is recycled in the EU. (6) A substantial part of Europe’s metal scrap, disposed electronics and end-of-life vehicles is exported to Asia and Africa. This often comes down to environmental dumping. Recycling within EU would result in less pollution and more security of supply. A growing 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, in the short run, recycling cannot satisfy Europe’s hunger 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. If all the lithium that the EU has consumed in the past decade could be amassed for full recycling by 2030 – quod non –, that would not even be enough for one year of battery production for electric vehicles only. (8) Green NGO Transport & Environment expects that in 2030, a mere six percent of the lithium required for new electric vehicle batteries can be obtained from recycled European electric vehicle batteries. (9) Even if we choose a future with fewer and smaller cars (10), that would not completely remove the need for virgin lithium, and the same goes for cobalt and rare earths.

Besides recycling, there are other circular strategies, such as reuse and repair, which lead to a more efficient use of metals. 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, as pursued by the European Commission, reduces the demand for metals as well.


A further strategy to decrease supply risks and avoid depletion is the substitution of scarce metals by more common materials. In certain wires and cables, for example, copper can be replaced by aluminium, the third most abundant element in the Earth’s crust. Substitution merits more research and experiments, but it is no miracle solution. Since many metals have unique properties, their alternatives may be less performant. Also, substitution sometimes boils down to swapping one scarce metal for another metal which is also scarce, in an economic, physical or geopolitical sense.


Dilemmas of substitution

Electric car maker Tesla endeavours to replace cobalt in batteries with nickel. Since no country dominates the provision of nickel, it has a lower supply risk than cobalt. (10) However, at current trajectory, nickel might be depleted before cobalt. (11)
The motors of Tesla cars have either electromagnets or permanent magnets. The latter require rare earths, which are geopolitically scarce. Electromagnets use no rare earths, but they need more copper, which might be depleted before the end of the century.
Wind turbines come in two types: some have generators connected to gearboxes, others have direct-drive generators with permanent magnets. Only the latter require rare earths, but the former use more metals overall.
Food for thought: if we could substitute any metal that gets scarce by another metal, we might run out of all metals at the same time.

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. Before mid-century, the exponential growth phase of the energy transition must be completed. The digitalisation of our lives and societies has, or should have, its limits as well. In the meantime, we are forced to face the thorny issues of metal mining.


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), 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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