Copper and the Circular Economy: Challenges and Solutions

Global stakeholders gathered in Antwerp earlier this month for the World Resources Forum, themed around ‘closing loops’. To achieve a more circular economy, industry and the EU need to work even closer to address the challenges, and having the right data underpins these efforts.

By Dr Katia Lacasse, ECI’s Director for Health, Environment and Sustainable Development
and Nicole Hanson, Sustainable Development Analyst at the International Copper Association (ICA)

Copper demand is growing

As we advance on a low-carbon economy—with more renewables and electric vehicles, and greater energy efficiency and electrification—global demand for copper and other non-ferrous metals rises. The World Bank’s 2017 report “The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low Carbon Future” illustrates how fundamental primary and secondary raw materials are to many sectors of the economy, particularly as they aim for carbon neutrality.

This is true globally, but especially in Europe, where our ambitious climate and energy goals for 2030, and the new 2050 net zero emissions strategy, mean we must accelerate uptake of clean technologies.  As demand for raw materials increases, optimised flow of energy and materials, reduction of waste generation and smart use of by-products in co-located processes—the elements of a truly circular economy—become key to sustainably meeting that demand.

Europe’s copper industry is a circular economy frontrunner

Europe’s copper manufacturing industry has long operated on circular principles, primarily due to copper’s suitability for endless recycling without loss of properties, which allows it an infinite life. To remain competitive in Europe, it is also essential for industries to optimise energy and material use.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Europe is a recycling leader, with almost 50 percent of its copper demand already met with recycled material (Fraunhofer ISI), resulting in reduced waste and primary resource demand. Recovering copper from applications such as motors, transformers and cables requires up to 85 percent less energy than primary production, and the industry is working to further increase recycling rates.

Recycling is part of the answer, but has limits

Europe’s relatively high recycling rates are to be celebrated. However, there are factors that limit how much recycled material can be recovered. Regulatory barriers in advanced economies can lead to copper-containing waste products leaking to countries with lower recycling standards or capacities.

A more significant barrier to closing copper’s loop starts even before a product is used: during the design phase, when the technical and economic feasibility of recycling can be impeded. As more sophisticated electronic products are marketed, small quantities of a vast array of different metals are needed, requiring more complex technologies for proper sorting and recycling. Often, the necessary collection and recycling infrastructure and technologies do not yet exist.

Reducing losses

Knowing where scrap disappears from and re-enters the global supply chain is an important step in improving recycling rates. The International Copper Association (ICA) is working with the Sustainable Recycling Industries programme to quantify scrap material flows from China and OECD countries—including EU Member States—to Ghana and South Africa: two countries known for their large and often informal recycling practices.

Based on data the industry has collected so far, the ratio of recycled scrap to copper demand in the EU would have risen much more, had the bloc domestically processed the flow of copper waste and scrap instead of exporting it.

The need for mining

Even with improved reuse and recycling rates, primary resource extraction will be needed to meet growing demand for copper. Mining must continue alongside our recycling efforts, to ensure a stable supply of copper for electricity grids, consumer electronics and low-carbon technologies.

Each year, our members invest more than $20 billion in improving the environmental performance of their operations, according to our annual Sustainable Development Indicators. Our industry has already reduced its per-unit energy consumption by 60 percent since 1990. Thanks to innovative process technologies and waste-heat recovery, European copper industry emissions are down to 0.1 percent of total EU emissions.

Closing the loop

To fully close the loop for raw materials such as copper, more needs to be done by industry and the EU.

A supportive policy framework is needed to encourage recycling processes, balancing the energy and CO2 increase of a more complex process against the recycling value of materials. Regulators and industry should work together to agree universally-acceptable definitions, reliable methodologies and correct data, providing a solid base to measure progress and decide next steps.

As an example, while we welcome EIT Raw Material’s “Raw Materials Scoreboard 2018”, some of its figures and data sets are either incomplete or not in line with our own and other stakeholders’ research. We would be pleased to work alongside the European Commission and other stakeholders to fill the knowledge gap and attain the most accurate data to provide an accurate view of where we are and what work remains.

From a business perspective, we need product designers to place a greater emphasis on recyclability, and entrepreneurs to make collection and processing of complex products more feasible.

Finally, we as a society should consider the importance of copper and other raw materials as we strive for carbon neutrality, because they will play an integral role in helping us meet our climate and energy goals—and supporting our economy—in the decades to come.