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The circular economy: recycling is only the third-best option

Even if all raw materials could be recycled, this alone would not be enough to meet the rapidly growing demand. It is crucial that all options for waste prevention and reuse be exhausted and products and infrastructure used for as long as possible. In addition, these must be designed to be durable and easy to repair.

Current demand for lithium, cobalt, copper and rare earths is increasingly being described as an international race. The European Commission even considers access to such raw materials to be a question of European sovereignty. So, is recycling the solution to securing raw material supplies, preventing harm to the environment and human rights violations, and becoming less dependent on raw material imports from China and other third countries?

Recycling beats prospecting

In Germany’s waste hierarchy, recycling is only the third-best solution, because even if the utopia became reality that almost all raw materials that are technically recyclable would actually be recycled, this would not be enough to cover the rapidly growing global demand for raw materials. In addition, repeated use cycles of a material do not come for free: They cost energy, water and, where applicable, chemicals for reprocessing. There is also a loss of quality due to increasing impurities and of the material itself, as usually only a small fraction of the material can be recovered from a product. We must nevertheless advocate for this third-best option as well, as recycling is still miles ahead of the extraction of primary raw materials. And it has significant potential: According to a study by the North Rhine-Westphalia Office of Nature, Environment and Consumer Protection (LANUV), eleven kilograms of smartphones contain the same amount of gold as one ton of gold ore.

Eleven kilograms of smartphones contain the same amount of gold as one ton of gold ore.

There is still a lot of room for improvement as well. The global recycling capacity for electronic waste, for instance, can only accommodate 25 to 35 percent of the total volume of waste, which is increasing rapidly. Recycling rates to do not reach the levels that are already technically feasible. The recycling rate for some raw materials such as gallium or silicon metals, materials which the EU classified as critical or strategic, is zero. This has a number of reasons. Some examples: There are easily accessible, well-functioning collection systems for only very few products. In addition, many products are built in a way that makes them nearly impossible to take apart. Metals are used in alloys, which makes it difficult to achieve single-variety material streams in recycling. They often occur in minute quantities, such as in electronic tags in clothing or toys. Some complex but effective recycling processes are not widely used because they are deemed uneconomical.

Maximizing service life and reducing resource requirements

These limitations of recycling illustrate that the circular economy will have to rely on other measures. Following the waste hierarchy, all options for waste prevention and reuse should be exhausted first. This means that the cycles must be slowed down: Products and infrastructure must be used for as long as possible in order to minimize resource-intensive new production. Products must be designed to be durable and easy to repair. Policymakers have a role to play in promoting conditions for long-term use and repair. Taking the example of electronic devices, however, it is clear that many companies deliberately design their products to have a short service life. Wearing parts that cannot be replaced, a lack of software updates and aggressive marketing are just some of the strategies they employ to this end, for example in the IT sector. Apart from waste prevention and reuse, the demand for raw materials must also be reduced in order to prevent environmental damage and human rights violations caused by mining projects and to achieve better supply security. So we need strategies that go beyond a circular economy, including a mobility transition that relies on fewer and smaller cars with smaller batteries and the practice of sharing and lending products rather than everyone buying their own.

Political processes towards a circular economy

Unfortunately, not even politicians have internalized this sufficiently yet. Too often, recycling is still the (almost sole) focus when it comes to the circular economy, in particular with regard to providing funding (see also the article on the Critical Raw Material Act). Some political steps in the right direction can be observed but they do not yet go far enough: With its Ecodesign Directive, the EU aims to make long-lasting, repairable and recyclable product design mandatory. It is also planning a directive to promote repairs - but the Commission’s proposal ignores key barriers for repairs such as replacement parts that are expensive or difficult to obtain.

The German environmental ministry is currently developing a national circular economy strategy. This is a great opportunity to advance and strengthen strategies for long-term product use, reuse and demand reduction. However, the policy paper prepared for the strategy gives rise to concerns that the focus in detail and funding may once again be on the third-best option: recycling.

Johanna Sydow heads the International Environmental Policy Division at the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Her fieldwork on mining in Ghana, Peru and Ecuador (2009-2013) turned her into an advocate for the reduction of raw materials consumption and for binding rules for companies.

Luisa Denter is an advisor on resource policy and circular economy at the environmental and development NGO Germanwatch e.V. in Bonn.

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