"First, we need to reduce our consumption, second, try to substitute and increase the resource efficiency of our processes and third, recycle," said Stéphane Arditi, product and waste policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), an NGO.
Only then should Europe seek to intensify commercial exchanges to make up for shortfalls of certain imported materials, he added.
Arditi was commenting on a European Commission policy paper, adopted in February, which identified three pillars in response to potential supply shortages of key raw materials: securing trade agreements, domestic mining and recycling.
Arditi broadly supports the Commission's agenda but says the three pillars need to be better prioritised. His argument is that Europe's import dependency is likely to increase if recycling and efficiency are not prioritised over trade and domestic mining.
Supporting a viable recycling industry
However, Arditi warns recycling will not happen without "legal drivers" such as recycling targets, which would give the recycling industry long-term visibility and assurances that its investments will be profitable.
In this sense, he said further focus on mining and trade initiatives could jeopardise research into substitution and recycling. If the recycling industry has to compete with virgin material extraction, then businesses will be more reluctant to set up recycling facilities, he argued.
"This is exactly what happened with rare earths," Arditi explained. "Our current recycling techniques and methodologies are not really profitable and there is a kind of reluctance from the industry to develop that further intensively, because the shortage of rare earths is not an absolute shortage, but is linked to Chinese export quotas," he went on.
In short, if a new mine is opened somewhere in the world, it can jeopardise investments in the recycling industry, Arditi argues.
"I'm not saying that only recycling can save us. But prioritising will enable us to get all the potential we've got in terms of R&D, technology and innovation in recycling. This is good for Europe because these activities are located here and could create jobs here," Arditi said.
While rare earths are currently dominating the headlines on raw materials, Arditi argues that merely focusing on them does not help to address the real problem of resource scarcity.
Of course, rare earths are very difficult to recover, he accepts, but technologies do exist to recover other critical resources like platinum and lithium. And a new legal framework on these could herald a step-change in boosting the effectiveness and economic viability of recycling, he believes.
Towards high-tech recycling
The NGO's views are strongly supported by Umicore, a Belgian-based global leader in waste recovery and recycling. The multinational firm operates the world's largest precious metal refining installation, which partly runs on electronic scarp.
The company is advocating a move from the traditional waste business to quality high-tech recycling in order to close the loop on all materials. Stephan Csoma, Umicore's senior vice-president of government affairs, explained that recycling is made possible due to the value attributed to waste, or because the volume of waste, which includes vehicles at the end of their lives, is such that society cannot cope with it.
For Csoma, it would still make sense to recycle scarce and critical raw materials even though the process is not economically viable, because doing so would contribute to the EU's resource security.
In its February policy paper, the European Commission identified urban mining – the recovery of resources contained in waste – as holding untapped potential to improve access to raw materials.
But the returns from urban mining are not as high as from virgin extraction. Speaking in Brussels, Csoma highlighted the huge difference in concentration of materials in urban mines compared to primary mines: "In a primary gold mine you have five grams of gold in one tonne of ore, whereas in one tonne of circuit boards you have 250 grams of it and in one tonne of mobile phones 300-350 grams."
If all mobile phones and laptops were recycled, one fifth of the cobalt which is mined today could already be recycled, he said, noting that only 2% cell phones are currently collected worldwide.
The same applies to catalytic converters, which use platinum metals. Csoma says that for one tonne of platinum materials – platinum, palladium, and rhodium – drawn from catalysts, "you have two kilos of these materials versus five grams in the ore body".
Even though the amount of recovered raw materials is low in urban mining, the main advantage is that it requires less energy than primary production to produce the materials. The consequence is that less CO2 emissions are generated. In a carbon-constrained world, this should help producers to keep costs down.
Meanwhile, the EU continues to export large quantities of electronic scrap to developing countries, where precious materials escape treatment and recovery. When e-waste is exported, only 25% of gold is recovered compared to 100% with best-available technologies, Cosma said. With the best technology, not only gold but 15 to 20 other metals are recovered as well, he pointed out.
"It is not worth having a great collection and dismantling system in place if we then export the scrap and the result for Europe is zero recovery," Csoma said, emphasising that recycling should always be considered as a holistic system.