As the new European Parliament begins its next mandate, and ahead of the new Commission mandate in autumn, now is a key moment to look at circular economy policy for the coming years, and how the copper industry and policymakers can work together.
Copper, by its very nature, is a circular material. Today, half of Europe’s copper demand is met with recycled material. When copper is recycled and used for a new purpose, it does not lose its properties or quality, allowing for unlimited reuse and recycling. Furthermore, copper by-products can also be recycled, driving recycling of other products as well.
Copper has a key role to play in closing the loop and making the economy more circular; however, a holistic approach to tackling the circular economy is needed by policymakers when deciding on legislation. Industry must be able to implement its circular solutions.
Such solutions are already being put in place by some copper industry leaders. La Farga Lacambra in Spain has a closed circle production system whereby it produces semi-finished products using the secondary copper that it produces. To do so, La Farga uses its own technology, allowing for copper that is 99.9 percent pure to be obtained from copper scrap.
Meanwhile in Germany, Aurubis is extracting CO2-free surplus heat from copper production and delivering it to HafenCity East, near Hamburg, through a 3.7-kilometre pipeline. The project saves 20,000 tonnes of CO2—equivalent to about 10,000 cars driving 12,000 kilometres—per year. The project means HafenCity East is the first city neighbourhood to be entirely supplied with CO2-free industrial heat.
Metallo in Belgium is also innovating to close the loop. Its ground-breaking new plasma oven allows the company to recycle low-grade materials in such a way that they can be turned into high-grade metals and minerals.
As copper is found in many consumer electronic devices, e-waste is an issue the industry is also heavily involved in tackling. About 35 percent of electronic waste in Europe ends up in officially reported collection or recycling systems, a number that is far too low. Boliden’s Rönnskär smelter in northern Sweden is one of the world’s largest recyclers of metal from electronic material, with an annual capacity of 120,000 tonnes. More industry players need to follow Boliden’s lead in solutions to the ever-increasing amount of e-waste.
Despite innovation and proactivity by the copper industry, even more can be done. To do so, policymakers need to take a more universal approach to the circular economy.
Industry needs to better inform policymakers of what they are already doing, but also of what they can do regarding the circular economy. Doing so can ensure both sides work together to approach the topic from all angles. Policymakers would then be better informed of what is happening on the ground and what different policy options could help the industry develop even more sustainably.
If this dialogue is not achieved, we risk giving the wrong signals to industry and hindering progress on achieving the goal of a more circular economy. This can lead to dissuasive situations for companies to implement more circular solutions.
For example, copper slags—a significant by-product—could be used as a solution in construction, but are often not permitted, leading to other, non-recycled materials having to be sourced instead. Additionally, the recycling of e-waste may require more energy than using virgin material, even if the overall carbon footprint is significantly reduced. Despite this, such details are not always factored into current energy-efficiency requirements.
Finally, the issue of carbon credits and surplus heat sometimes leads to the recycler being taxed, or not reaping the benefits from implementing measures that save emissions and help us to reach climate goals.
These are just a few of the many areas in which the circular economy could be improved, cutting across several different policy areas. A siloed approach is insufficient and will not help in reaching circular economy targets.
As we enter this new legislative mandate in the EU, where the circular economy will be a key legislative topic, it is more vital than ever that industry and policymakers work together. This kind of collaboration is essential for a circular economy to be achieved. The solutions are there, and the copper industry is innovating with a circular mindset to implement real solutions. What is lacking, however, is a dialogue and holistic approach that allows the industry to implement its solutions.