April 14. 2024. 6:41

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Critical minerals: recycling ‘not a silver bullet’, industry says


As the European Commission puts the finishing touches to its Critical Raw Materials Act ahead of publication next week, recyclers have issued a word of caution: Europe should not get its hopes too high on recycling, at least not in the short term.

The European recycling industry has called for an “ambitious” yet “pragmatic” approach to recycling in the upcoming Critical Raw Materials Act.

Brussels is expected to table its proposal on 14 March, aiming to boost the production and recycling in Europe of key raw materials like lithium, cobalt, and rare earth elements, considered essential to the EU’s green and digital transformation.

Alongside moves to relaunch mining activity inside Europe, the proposal is expected to include targets for the collection and recycling of minerals contained in appliances like solar panels or electric car batteries to ensure they are kept in a closed loop.

A leaked version of the Critical Raw Materials Act, seen by EURACTIV, seeks to have “10% of the Union’s consumption of strategic raw materials” mined in the EU. In addition, 15% of the EU’s annual consumption of each critical raw material should come from recycling, the draft says.

However, the industry itself has warned that Europe shouldn’t put too much hope in recycling.

“Recycling targets can drive sustainability but they’re not a silver bullet,” said Emmanuel Katrakis, secretary general of EuRIC, the European Recycling Industries Confederation.

“Recycling won’t be able to completely substitute mining – that goes without saying,” he told an event hosted last week by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an EU advisory body.

“This is why we strongly support ambitious, yet pragmatic recycled content targets,” he explained. “You need to have a market, basically”.

LEAK: EU Commission wants 10% of critical raw materials mined in Europe

To boost EU autonomy, the European Commission is seeking to introduce targets of 10%-40% of the mining, recycling, and processing of critical raw materials used in the bloc to be done in the EU by 2030.

The market for recycled materials is currently tiny and would need to expand significantly to shift manufacturing patterns, Katrakis said. And that requires feeding recyclers with sufficient quantities of materials that can be collected, sorted, and brought back to the manufacturers.

This is a process that will take years, according to Eurometaux, a trade association representing non-ferrous metals producers and recyclers in Europe.

For instance, precious materials contained in electric vehicle batteries will not become widely available until “2035-2040, once we start to see battery scrap, magnets, and solar panels reach their end of life in meaningful volumes,” said Chris Heron, director for communications and public affairs at Eurometaux.

And at the moment, electric cars are only in the early stages of mass-market development, he continued, saying the benefits of recycling will only be visible many years from now.

“Basically, what we’re doing now is adding materials into our urban mine that will be there in 15 years’ time to capitalise on.”

Planning ahead

That said, everyone agrees that recycling is essential and must be planned for early on in order to relieve pressure on primary supply.

“The security benefits of recycling can be far greater in regions, like the EU, with high levels of clean energy deployment and limited resource endowment,” said Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

“Putting in place better collection systems, harmonised waste regulations, and a sound investment framework for recycling facilities are vital to position the EU as a leader in the space,” he wrote in an opinion piece co-signed with Pascal Canfin, the chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee.

Eurometaux’s Heron said that “recycling is Europe’s biggest long-term opportunity” to reach greater autonomy in many of the raw materials needed for the energy transition.

According to EuRIC, recycling can play a much larger role in de-risking the supply chain.

To do that, the first step is to ramp up collection of e-waste, which currently stands at “less than 50%”, way below the 65% target set out in EU legislation, Katrakis said.

But probably the highest hurdle is to ensure recycling is economically viable, especially for minerals found in small quantities. For those, recycling will simply not happen without economic incentives, such as tax breaks or targets for the incorporation of recycled materials into new appliances.

“This is where we have the biggest challenge ahead of us,” Katrakis said.

Why the EU needs bold and broad strategies for critical minerals

As the EU nurtures its clean energy manufacturing ambitions, the reliance on imports of critical materials remains a cause for concern in many Member States, write Fatih Birol and Pascal Canfin.

Global competition for scrap

Another big hurdle is growing global competition for recycled scrap. Countries like China and South Korea are “implementing very aggressive industrial policies to build up their own recycling industries,” Heron remarked.

“They have bigger scrap volumes than us at the moment so it’s giving them an advantage. And they’re also acting quite aggressively to get that scrap from other markets,” he said. “But we shouldn’t be reactive – Europe can get ahead of the curve if we take the initiative now.”

According to Eurometaux, Europe can ramp up its recycling market by imposing design standards and technical specifications at product level to make raw materials more easily recoverable from used appliances.

Another area is to place tighter controls on scrap shipments to foreign countries. “We have a challenge today with leakage of waste from Europe,” Heron warned, specifically for intermediate waste streams like “black mass”, a type of e-waste comprising crushed and shredded used battery cells.

“Our view is that we should be clearly defining ‘black mass’ as a hazardous waste” in order to keep the materials in a European recycling loop, he said, suggesting extending the hazardous waste classification to other electronic waste.

This should in turn be reflected in other areas of EU policy, “for example the chemicals legislation,” which Heron said currently “makes it very difficult to recycle some of these critical raw materials”.

A model to replicate, he said, is the EU battery regulation, which introduced targets for improved collection and material-specific end-of-life recycling rates.

“Hopefully, we can extend this approach and apply it to all of the waste legislation that is due to come next,” Heron said, citing the end-of-life vehicles directive and the directive on Waste from Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE).

Self-sufficiency

One of the big ideas of the EU’s upcoming Critical Raw Materials Act is to introduce targets for self-sufficiency on certain minerals.

“We have to try and achieve a certain percentage of ability to supply our own demand,” said Peter Handley, a senior official at the Commission’s internal market directorate. “We should be aiming to supply up to 30% of our needs for certain things,” he said at a EURACTIV event in December.

Eurometaux said it supports self-sufficiency targets in the upcoming CRM Act while EuRIC put forward the idea of building “strategic reserves” for some raw materials, with a fraction of them coming from recycling.

But another, sometimes overlooked, aspect is to substitute some materials or find ways of using less of them, said Antoine Oger from the Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP).

“We would like to avoid extraction as much as possible,” Oger said, calling for raw material “reduction targets” to be considered alongside mining and recycling objectives.

For the IEEP, “the objective of the critical raw materials act should be based on reducing our overall environmental footprint,” Oger said. “That can happen by reducing raw material use and by increasing our resource efficiency.”

Others, however, say greater priority should be placed on mining. “When I look at the bottlenecks for raw materials, they’re at the mining stage,” Heron said. Getting political support for recycling is easy, he remarked. “And yet, we haven’t opened a mine for the last 15 years”.

EU to introduce targets for raw materials self-sufficiency

The European Commission is considering objectives to increase the EU’s self-sufficiency on key raw materials needed for the green and digital transitions, with targets of up to 30% for some of them, a senior EU official has said.