Managing limited resources of critical raw materials is one of the biggest challenges for the European Commission if the continent is to achieve a more sustainable, less carbon intensive, future, explains Ian Sheppard, Managing Director at EMR.
Increasingly, the technology that modern economies rely upon – from smart devices to green energy – depend on materials such as lithium, cobalt and nickel. There are limited primary sources of these materials within Europe’s borders.
Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s Vice-President for Inter-institutional Relations and Foresight says a secure and sustainable supply of raw materials is a “prerequisite for a resilient economy”. It’s hard to disagree.
According to research by the Commission, the growth in demand for these raw materials will be huge in the coming years. For electric vehicle batteries and energy storage alone, the continent will require up to 18 times more lithium by 2030 and up to 60 times more by 2050. As Šefčovič says: “we cannot allow current reliance on fossil fuels [to be replaced] with dependency on critical raw materials”.
The Commission has, in response, launched its Action Plan on Critical Raw Resources. It proposes actions which will reduce Europe’s reliance on third-countries, diversify the sourcing of these materials and improve resource efficiency and circularity to ensure we hold on to the materials we already have – hidden away within existing products or waste.
This is where EMR fits into the puzzle. As one of the world’s leading recycling companies, we are passionate about finding, extracting and reusing materials, from everyday plastics and scrap metal to the more challenging critical metals such as nickel, cobalt and lithium and rare earth materials such as neodymium. These materials are distributed across the waste that Europe produces each year. At EMR, we use technology from across industries as diverse as food processing to coal mining to find and reclaim the tiniest quantities of these precious materials. We call this process “urban mining”.
Consumers – and their demand for more sustainable products – are playing a vital role in making Europe’s businesses and governments get smarter about the way resources are used.
In the steel industry, producers such as TATA are actively working to migrate from current blast furnaces which use primary iron ore and coal, to electric arc furnaces which use recycled steel from suppliers like EMR and can use power from renewable sources. By producing low carbon impact steel, the company can compete better in a rapidly changing market where sustainability is increasingly important. Commercial advantages like these are vital for high-wage, high-cost economies such as ours.
Finally, in the run up to next year’s postponed COP 26 summit, there’s going to be pressure from campaigners for governments to consider the sustainability of products and services purchased by the public sector. Companies such as EMR will be key in providing solutions for helping government’s better use, and reuse, the materials at their disposal.
In the long term, there may be different solutions. In parallel to our efforts to reclaim and reuse critical raw materials, scientists and engineers are hard at work to develop alternatives. There’s a lot of examples of this happening already. For example, the first photovoltaic cells used cadmium which is poisonous, expensive and difficult to extract. Gradually, alternatives were developed that did not include cadmium. The same thing happened with computer and TV display screens, which started using expensive rare earths. As demand grew, rare earth prices increased and researchers developed alternative organic compounds that were lower cost and had reduced environmental impact. Right now, there are teams of researchers trying to develop batteries for electric vehicles that are less dependent on cobalt and nickel but they’re not there yet.
For now, therefore, these materials are essential to becoming a more sustainable and less carbon intensive continent. This is why the European Commission has had to act. What would have once seemed like a radical manifesto for change increasingly attracts widespread support across politics, business and society.
As Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market at the Commission says:
"By diversifying the supply from third countries and developing the EU's own capacity for extraction, processing, recycling, refining and separation of rare earths, we can become more resilient and sustainable. Implementing the actions that we propose… will require a concerted effort by industry, civil society, regions and Member States."
At EMR we are helping to lead the way.