Unlimited Resources, Limited Environment

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Since 2008, raw materials have had a high priority on the European Union’s agenda. Faced with growing competition from new economic players such as China, India and Brazil, the EU has to work harder to secure its share in the global commodity market. Partnered with the U.S. and Japan, the EU conducts extensive studies on so-called “critical” materials for its industries and initiates strategic partnerships with resource-exporting countries such as Chile, Uruguay, Colombia and Argentina.

“After 400 years of mining in Europe, many deposits have been depleted. We now have to look elsewhere,” says Christian Hagelücken, head of EU advocacy for Umicore, a global materials technology and recycling group. He is also a member of the expert panel developing the EU’s Raw Materials Initiative, a diplomatic mission meant to secure a raw materials supply for the EU.

The outcome of these efforts is crucial for Europeans’ current and future lifestyles: Digital communications, as well as the automotive and energy sector, rely heavily on raw materials but face supply shortages. If the EU intends to reach its declared goal of a competitive low-carbon economy by 2050—which would require a reduction of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent, compared with 1990—it has to secure a continuing flow of critical materials. Both wind turbines and solar panels, for instance, cannot be produced without “rare earths” and other critical elements.

Hagelücken explains that the EU uses two indicators to identify critical materials: first, that a material is crucial to an EU industry and, secondly, that it faces supply risks. The risk may be that there are only limited deposits of the material or because the deposits are concentrated in a limited number of countries (like rare earths in China). Finally, materials are deemed critical if their deposits are in areas that are environmentally difficult to access or in politically unstable countries, like cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But for many experts on critical materials, it is not so much the scarcity of the materials now but whether the environmental damage needed to extract them is worth it. “We used to think that we would run out of resources, but now we realize that we are more likely to run out of ecosystems,” says Bernhard Wehrli, a professor of aquatic chemistry at ETH Zurich, in a publication by focusTerra, an earth science research and information center at the university.

Copper, which is widely utilized in construction and electronics, illustrates this argument. Although the metal has been used since 3000 B.C., the U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are still 6.3 million tons of copper untouched in the ground. This is 340 times as much as the amount extracted until 2014.

One of the last undeveloped copper districts in the world lies in the Ecuadorian Amazon, in the so-called southeastern Ecuadorian “copper belt,” which extends over an area of 2,080 square kilometers under one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots. The extraction of the belt’s copper would lead to the clearance of 5,000 acres of virgin cloud forest and the depletion and pollution of surrounding waterways.

“The challenge is not the amount of available resources but whether we can use them responsibly and sustainably. In particular, mineral resources are still available in great quantities. However, it might be debated if it is economic to extract them, considering the environmental impact of extraction and the amount of energy needed to use to extract,” says Christoph Heinrich, a professor of raw materials geology at ETH Zurich and president of the Swiss Geotechnical Commission, in a publication by focusTerra.

The definition of critical materials was the subject of an extensive workshop, conducted by Switzerland’s Foundation for Rare Metals, during October’s World Resources Forum in Davos, Switzerland. While the workshop revealed disagreement about the definition of critical materials, it spotlighted a growing feeling among experts about the need to fundamentally redefine how resources are treated.

“There are three categories of solutions when we face critical materials,” explains Hagelücken. “One, we need to secure more supply sources, meaning establish new trading partnerships or fight trade restrictions. When China imposed export restrictions on rare earths, the EU initiated proceedings at the Word Trade Organization. This helped to re-establish a crucial supply source. Second, we need to get better at recycling. And third, we need to be more efficient in our use of resources.”

For those promoting resource efficiency, a currently favored phrase is “circular economy.” That is, in theory, an economy without waste, where end products are returned to the beginning of the supply chain and reused, either once again as new materials or as energy supplies for the production of new products.

One of the central characteristics of the “circular economy” is the shift from ownership to services, where companies lease their products instead of selling them. This setup is meant to provide a major incentive to invest more in the longevity of the products, with companies more concerned about being able to continue renting them to consumers than producing new ones.

“We need to get better at prolonging the lives of the products we use,” says Thomas Graedel, a professor of industrial ecology at Yale University.

It’s a particularly relevant concept for critical materials, where more efficient use of them is seen as essential if their exhaustion—and, more urgently, the environmental damage needed to extract them—is to be avoided. But for a circular system to exist, better recycling rates are required. “For better recycling to happen, the design of products needs to be changed,” said Stefanie Hellweg, a professor of ecologic systems design at ETH Zurich. “At the moment, the recyclability is not considered in the design stage.” For example, it is now technically very challenging, and therefore uneconomical, to recycle the resources used in smartphones.

Many resource analysts believe the solution to this is the creation of so-called “modular devices,”where parts of an electronic device are easily (and cheaply) popped out and replaced. Fairphone, which is selling a phone essentially made of blocks (looking not unlike Lego) in which every part is removable, is trying to promote this idea. The idea is that easily replaceable parts will prolong the life of devices, reducing waste as well as the need to keep producing whole new products.

“The future is with modular devices,” said Karsten Schischke of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration, in a WRF presentation. In his view, this will not only make recycling easier but also improve the longevity of many electronics products. At the moment, a smartphone’s life span is often determined by its touchscreen or battery—an example of very inefficient design.

For products—like smartphones—that require critical materials in their manufacture, such practices could be important in making supply chains for them sustainable. It’s something likely to attract more and more attention as the environmental (and financial costs) of extracting the materials continue to grow.

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