More than recycling – challenges & potentials of the Circular Economy in the case of metals

The extraction and processing of resources are directly linked to 50% of all human-induced climate impacts and 90% of biodiversity losses (Bruno Oberle et al., 2019). Promoting resource efficiency is therefore recognised worldwide as a solution approach to counteract this rapid development. The circular economy (CE) approach brings new dynamism to the discussion of the well-known concept of resource efficiency (van Ewijk, 2018; Weizsäcker et al., 1997). Both approaches aim to reduce resource use and thus prevent tremendous environmental impacts. For example, the CE is thought to be crucial for reaching climate neutrality by 2050 as well as decoupling of economic growth and resource use (European Commission, 2020). Studies estimate that eco-design, waste prevention and reuse may result in up to EUR 600 billions of savings for businesses in Europe (Kalmykova et al., 2018). 

The metal industry is of high importance in this discussion as metal production is responsible for 8% of the global energy expenditure (UNEP 2013). Steel production alone is responsible for a quarter of all industrial GHG emissions (Allwood et al., 2011; Ito et al., 2020). However, the metal industry and especially the steel industry can look back on a long history of recycling as a core principle of the CE resulting in great resource savings. Nevertheless, there are major doubts as to whether future steel production can be covered entirely by secondary material. This is due to the dependency of the recycling infrastructure on primary metallurgy, the limits of recycling and the low degree of circularity of steel (Haas et al., 2015; Pauliuk, Wang, et al., 2013; Steger et al., 2018; Xylia et al., 2018).

In the presentation, the challenges of resource use in general as well as the possible strategies of the Circular Economy are presented and their applicability for the field of metals, in particular steel, is discussed. To illustrate this, project examples will be presented in which, on the one hand, the CE strategies of re-purposing/re-manufacturing and, on the other hand, a technical approach of sorting by specific type for recyling will be illustrated.

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