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.