Closing Europe’s raw materials loop: The case for copper

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Electrical copper wires. Raw materials in general and copper as a key, enabling material, are important parts of the circular economy, writes Dr Katia Lacasse. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Metals in the circular economy.

There can be no wind or solar energy, no smart grids and no electric vehicles without copper, aluminium or steel, to name but a few. What Europe must do is enable advanced processing of materials in order to close the loop, writes Dr Katia Lacasse.

Dr Katia Lacasse is director for health, environment and sustainable development at the European Copper Institute (ECI).

Raw materials are crucial to the EU and the European economy. They form a strong industrial base and facilitate modern, everyday life due to their key role in a broad range of goods, applications and technologies.

Raw materials will also enable our sustainable future: they have a leading role to play in the low-carbon and circular economy. There can be no wind or solar energy, no smart grids and no electric vehicles without copper, aluminium or steel, to name but a few. In addition, more and more metals used by European industry come from secondary or recycled sources, contributing to the EU’s ambitions for a closed-loop economy.

It is clear, therefore, that Europe needs, and must further develop, its sustainable raw materials base inside Europe. As the third EU Raw Materials Week comes to an end, here are some thoughts on how to facilitate the move to an effective closed-loop economy – and the legislative support needed to make it happen.

A circular economy of metals

Copper is a perfect example of a circular material by nature and the copper industry has long operated on circular principles. The life of copper is infinite and has no end phase. Once mined, it can be recycled over and over with no loss of properties. We’re particularly good at this in Europe: nearly 50% of European copper demand is currently met by recycled material. This has multiple benefits for the environment: in addition to reducing waste and protecting scarce resources, recovering copper from common applications such as motors, transformers and cables—in which it is the main material—uses up to 85% less energy than primary production. This is all the more important since copper is core to several growth areas, including clean energy, mobility and energy efficiency and demand thus projected to increase significantly.

Operating on circular principles is intrinsic to our industry and something we have been doing a long time before the concept of a ‘circular economy’ was born in legislative terms. We continue to invest in optimising the value chain as much as possible. To go further, it is essential to have a well-thought through legislative framework, fully implemented across Member States, that supports recycling and reuse whenever feasible Currently, however, this is at risk.

Enabling framework

In our view, three components in particular need tackling to create a truly enabling framework for the circular economy to thrive:

  • Enabling advanced processing of materials

More and more sophisticated electronic products and applications are being put on the market, incorporating a vast amount of different materials and metals in small quantities. This in turn has an impact on waste processes where increasingly complex technologies ensure that all these materials can be efficiently sorted and recycled. Copper’s role is important, because it is a key enabling material for circularity. In other words, recovering copper enables the recycling of many other materials, many of which are of high value but are present in very small quantities. Recovering the materials embedded in products requires more effort and investment in intricate recycling processes and our industry is already investing heavily. It now needs to be supported by a legislative framework that encourages recycling processes where these make sense, balancing the energy and CO2 increase of a more complex process against the recycling value extracted from materials.

  • Supporting access to a steady supply of strategic raw materials

To remain competitive, European industry is highly dependent on a steady supply of raw materials, both primary and secondary. EU legislation should therefore encourage the use of recycled materials, so that waste streams and secondary materials can stay in Europe. Any measures preventing certain materials from being recycled in Europe will result in waste leakage to third countries. This means that Europe loses out on the jobs and growth associated with recycling and the creation of a market for secondary raw materials, but also that the high European treatment standards will not have to be met, to the detriment of the environment.

  • Facilitating a market to sell innovative and sustainable products

Metal mining and recycling often provide a number of valuable co-products, which are not only unavoidable, but also needed: they are an integral part of the production process, but also find uses in other ways and sectors. One of copper’s co-products, iron silicates, is, for example, commonly used in the building and construction sectors. Hence, the use of iron silicates can contribute to a circular economy by avoiding environmental, financial and spatial burdens of landfilling, thus preserving natural mineral resources in the loop and conserving energy. A legislative framework across Europe should therefore facilitate a market for these co-products.

  • 2019: the year of transition

2019 marks a year of transition with the European Parliament elections taking place in May and a new Commission taking office in November. It is clear that we—the industry and the new EU institutions—will need to continue the important work launched under the Juncker Commission to create a circular economy in the EU. Raw materials in general and copper as a key, enabling material, are important parts of that puzzle.

Let’s work together across sectors and governments to ensure we create a legislative framework in the EU that enables the move to a closed-loop economy, while at the same time ensuring the security of supply of raw materials in Europe. While a lot has already been done, more action is needed to create the right framework to prevent waste leakage to third countries, boost European recycling efforts, increase the use of recycled materials and create industrial synergies across sectors.

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