Global stakeholders gathered in Antwerp last week for the World Resources Forum, which this year was themed around ‘closing loops’. A joint European Copper Institute and International Copper Association session looked at Copper and the Circular Economy: Challenges, Opportunities and Solutions. From this deep-dive, we pulled out five key take-aways.

  1. To meet future copper demand from low-carbon technologies and sustainable energy systems, we will need both mining and recycling. While there is an opportunity to explore different economic models—for instance around a shared economy that would lead to fewer vehicles on the road—this does not detract from the fact that our raw material usage is likely to increase significantly. Existing and upcoming World Bank data on the role of minerals and metals for a low-carbon future back this up.
  2. The more material we need, the more important it becomes to source, use and recycle it sustainably. There are different ways of doing this, and we saw great examples, such as replacing difficult-to-access raw materials (e.g. rare earths) with more commonly available materials like copper, which has less environmental impact (the H2020-funded project ReFreeDrive), designing for repair to increase the average lifetime of mobile phones (Fairphone) and how a modern European miner and smelter, Boliden, has optimised its own manufacturing process.
  3. The challenges and priorities of achieving a circular economy are clearly different for Europe and developing countries, and it is important we share knowledge on sustainable mining and recycling practices across the world. It is vital to ensure local communities benefit from their mining, manufacturing and recycling industry, and workers—formal or informal—benefit from safe working conditions.
  4. We all sit on our own personal ‘urban mines’ of small electronics, such as old mobile phones. Ensuring we get these materials back into the value chain is important to prevent the loss of materials and allow smelters to run at full—and therefore most efficient—capacity. We need to incentivise collecting small electronic scrap in Europe. One initiative to build capacity for sustainable recycling in developing countries is Sustainable Recycling Industries, which aims to ensure sustainable integration and participation of small and medium enterprises from developing and transition countries in the global recycling of secondary resources..
  5. The World Resources Forum was an excellent opportunity to learn from other stakeholders how they are addressing the challenges of circularity. As the copper industry, we’re well advanced when it comes to working on responsible sourcing. Our recycling rates, particularly in Europe, are high. However, there is much work to do for all of us, if we are to build a truly sustainable future for our world.