Sustainability: is reuse the answer staring the UK and Europe in the face?

Is reuse the answer?

The supply chain crisis is driving home the vulnerability of the UK and its EU counterparts in terms of access to raw materials in general and metals in particular.

On the other side of the Channel, the European Union’s overreliance on foreign suppliers for the strategic metals it needs to transition to a low-carbon economy is motivating a push to expand mining inside Europe, even as environmental protests highlight the disconnect between Europe’s green ambitions and one of the world’s most wasteful industries.

There is, however, a straightforward solution that could alleviate the worst effects of this crisis and futureproof Europe’s economies against unforeseen disruptions. While policymakers in the EU dress this idea up in jargon about the “circular economy,” the underlying message is simple: by manufacturing and using more durable products, European economies can reuse them instead of throwing them away.

It now falls to European decisionmakers (the UK government included) to put in place policies geared towards making that idea a reality, especially with demand for metals set to explode over the decades to come.

Conflict mining

With its action plan for the circular economy, the EU has at least acknowledged it has a serious problem to overcome. Given global supply chain disruptions could extend for another two years or more, Brussels remains particularly vulnerable to Chinese bottlenecks, with its metals and automotive industries most likely to be impacted. With that in mind, the bloc has expanded its list of critical minerals and is aggressively pursuing new mining opportunities alongside an industry-specific supply chain.

Some of the EU’s moves, however, have met with resistance from environmentalists concerned about the impact of new mining on nearby communities, local ecosystems, and the planet. The World Bank estimates that production of precious metals like cobalt, graphite and lithium will need to expand by at least 450% by 2050 to meet the swelling demand, but in wanting to wean itself off dependence on overseas suppliers, the EU has become embroiled in at least 19 ongoing “mining conflicts” as of last year.

So – is there a better way?

Circular makes more sense

From metals to construction, electronics, and shipping, the growing movement in favour of expanding reuse argues there is. The mining sector may be trying to improve its environmental, social and governance (ESG) scores, but reusing materials remains infinitely preferable to extracting new ones. A tonne of discarded iPhones, for example, contains 324 times more gold than that yielded by a tonne of gold ore, as well as 13 times more copper and 6.5 times more silver. The copper content in a typical copper ore mine stands at just 0.62%, compared to the existing copper already concentrated in billions of miles of cabling worldwide.

Embracing a truly circular model would have economic benefits alongside environmental ones. A recent analysis of the prospective transition to a circular economy in five EU member states found that, if fully embraced, it could potentially create over one million job opportunities and cancel out two-thirds of CO2 emissions. The same conclusions have been reached by other studies; a new report from the Rethink Plastic alliance found making two-thirds of all EU packaging reusable by 2050 could save 3.7 billion tonnes in emissions, 10 billion cubic metres of water, and 28 million tonnes of raw materials.

Shipping industry provides blueprint

Some sectors are uniquely well-positioned to prove the functionality of this model, with the shipping industry a prominent case in point. The ubiquitous shipping containers which transport goods between ports around the globe have been standardized to meet the needs and infrastructure of any industry and nation. Manufactured from durable materials, they can be reused again and again, and even turned into homes, coffee shops, and football stadiums.

While their propensity for reuse doesn’t get the same amount of attention, the steel drums, plastic drums, and other types of intermediate bulk containers (IBCs) used to store and transport everything from raw materials, petrochemicals, and pharmaceutical compounds to food ingredients, syrups, and wine can also be reused countless times, just like their larger counterparts in the shipping industry. Even those which have carried hazardous chemicals and substances can be entirely reconditioned, decontaminated, and safely repurposed for reuse in the food and drink sector, while broken or damaged units can be repaired or remodelled into new ones.

Unfortunately, the regulatory morass within and between EU states often prevents this sustainable reuse. Although the bloc’s idea of introducing a “digital product passport” to facilitate the reuse and recycling of consumer goods is a sound one, the recently published Waste Shipping Regulations (WSR) misses the opportunity to rectify the longstanding conflation of reusable industrial packaging products (like these storage containers) with consumer waste, an oversight that sees reusable products funnelled instead towards less sustainable recycling – or, worse, landfills. The bloc will need to address this failure to respect the waste hierarchy to achieve true circularity.

UK and EU face the same challenge

While Covid has already proven a huge thorn in the side of supply chains, the emergence of the Omicron variant signals we’re far from being out of the woods. Nor are pandemics the only unforeseen incidents which could derail the global economy going forwards. Between January and September of 2021, there were 81 force majeure statements issued by raw material producers worldwide, with climate change likely to send that figure up even further.

That makes it an imperative to find better, more sustainable ways to source the resources needed for our green transitions. Metals, with their theoretically infinite potential for reuse and recycling, deserve special attention, especially in the UK (where recycling rates have plateaued for the best part of a decade). With governmental targets slipping dangerously out of reach, there has never been a better time to consider how to incentivise reuse as a first, best option.