COVID may have temporarily put public life and global markets on hold, but, the pandemic notwithstanding, the green energy transition marches on — and with that, our skyrocketing materials supply needs for the metals and minerals that underpin renewable technology.
As lawmakers and stakeholders look to secure our materials supply for a post-COVID context, it is becoming increasingly clear that “decoupling and securing” our supply chains will require an “all of the above” approach we’ve come to know from the energy policy discourse. In the context of working toward resource independence, this will warrant a focus on new mining as well as recycling, and reclamation of new minerals from old mine tailings.
The concept of a circular economy — a system which thrives on sustainability and focuses mainly on refining design production and recycling to ensure that little to no waste results — is not new, but has gained traction in recent years, and — with technological advances and shifting resource supply scenarios — will likely continue to do so.
In a new piece for Ars Technica, writer Scott K. Johnson zeroes in on the potential for recycling the materials that would replace fossil fuels in the transition to electric vehicles and renewable sources of energy, arguing that “[i]n principle, devices can be recycled at end of life to return these precious materials to a closed look that could eventually minimize the need for mining.”
As Johnson outlines:
“But with solar arrays, wind turbines, and electric vehicles starting to hit the disposal stage in increasing numbers—while manufacturing skyrockets—is a new recycling industry actually ramping up to take advantage? The answer is ‘not really’ for reasons both familiar and novel. A lot of heavy lifting remains between here and a closed loop for clean energy technolog[i]es.”
Johnson goes on to detail the potential and challenges surrounding specifically recycling of REEs, ultimately concluding:
“As with other materials, the sustainability of rare earths requires an ‘all of the above’ kind of approach. Manufacturers can be smarter about how they use rare earth elements and about designing products for ease of recycling. Recyclers can work out smarter methods to recover rare earths from devices at lower cost. And policy incentives or cooperative corporate agreements can encourage solutions to the logistical problems that prevent consumers from sending all their old devices to recyclers. These are all doable things. They just aren’t going to magically happen without commitment.”
There is certainly merit in recycling and pursuing the aspirational goal of “squaring the circle” to get to a closed loop circular economy, and we have discussed several initiatives in this field on our blog.
However, this pursuit will by no means obviate the need for traditional mining, and is as such not a panacea for supply woes. With innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, recycling and reclamation do, however, represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures – and as such deserve to be factored into any comprehensive mineral resource strategy.