Responsible resource stewardship is essential to the future of modern development in a climate-conscious society.
The circular economy can help meet demand for raw materials and lessen environmental impact by reducing and reusing waste.
A central theme of the circular economy concept is the valuation of materials within closed-loop systems. The optimal use of resources has been identified as a tool that can supplement the European Union's low-carbon strategy and can boost markets and the economy. This requires maximizing the potential value of materials by developing closed-loop systems of recovery and reuse. An essential prerequisite for these systems is the decoupling of economic growth from resource use in the context of a broader systemic change for producers and consumers.
Copper is a truly circular material that can be recycled without any loss of properties, making it a strategic material of choice and the copper industry an enabler of circularity and resource efficiency.
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Table of Contents
EU Industrial Strategy
At the heart of the European Green Deal is the new EU Industrial Strategy, which presents a plan for an ecological and digital "twin transition” in EU industry while ensuring competitiveness via-à-vis the rest of the world. Energy-intensive industries are required to reduce their carbon and material footprint. Recycled copper already serves as a sustainable avenue to a) meet the increasing demand for copper, being a carrier metal, in products of key value chains and b) secure clean and affordable energy. Promoting circular practices will reinforce the global competitiveness of the copper industry through its multifaceted integration in international value chains.
The twin transition needs to be both just and sustainable. Partnerships that leverage industry expertise and increased EU participation in international standardization bodies are essential to developing or harmonizing standards and technical regulations. According to the EU Industrial Strategy, priority will be given to high-impact product groups to promote investment in innovation and scalable market strategies. To this end, the copper industry is and shall remain a frontrunner in developing products that adhere to the EU's ambition for a green, digital and resilient industry, in line with the European Green Deal and the Paris Agreement aspirations.
Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP - 2.0)
The Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP 2.0) aims to make sustainable products the norm on the EU market. It focuses on resource-intensive value chains with high circularity potential, such as electronics, batteries, vehicles, construction and buildings. The Action Plan strives to reduce waste through effective resource management, extending material usage and providing their subsequent reuse in new products.
The copper industry is focused on ensuring a safe and sustainable operating space for the realization of a truly functional circular economy. Copper’s natural properties make it a key material in the green transition. To achieve the EU’s electrification and decarbonization strategies, both primary and secondary copper production will be needed to meet demand. To this end, promoting life cycle thinking, optimizing product and system design, and maintaining responsible and ethical copper production are at the forefront of the copper industry’s circularity efforts.
ECI supports the establishment of appropriate recycling efficiency indicators that demonstrate the efficacy of the waste management system, taking account of sector-specific nuances. Simultaneously, circular systems that maximize the use of industrial by-products (“industrial residues”) and promote recycling of existing materials (“in-stock”) need to be incentivized to reach the full potential of material use for the environment and the economy.
In doing so, the viability and limitations of recycling processes and strategies must be considered. If systems try to maximize resource conservation by increasing recycling processes beyond technically feasible levels, it will lead to an overconsumption of energy. These considerations can be addressed through state-of-the-art technologies, but these technologies would need to be deployed on a larger scale.
Recycling goes beyond just solid materials. Management of chemicals, which should be based on the chemical’s risk assessment and societal value, is also key to developing circular systems.
Sustainable Products Initiative
The Sustainable Products Initiative (SPI) works toward the establishment of sustainability mechanisms in a wide range of products and widens the scope of the Ecodesign Directive. Circularity is at the heart of the copper industry. ECI will continue to support the copper value chain in fulfilling the appropriate sustainability requirements through the provision of robust, transparent, reliable and comparable industry data for use by product designers, manufacturers and other actors across the supply chain.
The initiative’s Design-for-Sustainability approach will consider systemic opportunities and solutions. For example, sustainable building design, when addressed holistically, can save energy at equivalent rates to expected savings from policies addressing product efficiency alone. In addition, fostering industrial symbiosis by increasing the use of circular materials can contribute to product sustainability. Consumers are important actors in perpetuating sustainable systems through their market choices, and sufficient incentives should not be overlooked.
Substantiating Green Claims
The initiative for Substantiating Green Claims will require companies to verify their assertions about the environmental footprint of their products and/or services by using standard quantification methods. This will provide assurances against "greenwashing" and will help make claims reliable, comparable and verifiable across the EU for better informed consumer choices. ECI welcomes this initiative and recognizes it as a tool to unlock opportunities for a green and circular economy. We remain fully supportive of Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) and Environmental Footprinting (EF) that provide a solid, standardized and scientific approach to assess product/activity performance from a life-cycle perspective. However, industry-specific considerations need to be made when it comes to sustainability metrics, and knowledge gaps need to be equally considered. Recognition of voluntary initiatives and schemes remains of paramount importance if Europe wants to leverage the benefits from these environmental performance improvements.
Waste Legislation Reform
In view of the Circular Economy Action Plan's ambition to avoid and reduce waste, the European Commission is expected to set targets for reduction in specific waste streams and for waste prevention. Managing waste in an environmentally sound manner and maintaining the value of secondary materials are essential steps toward waste reduction. Today's Waste Framework Directive is the EU's legal framework for treating and managing waste in the EU. It introduces an order of preference for waste management called "waste hierarchy". Copper's value incentivizes the recycling of End-of-Life (EoL) products, such as electric and electronic equipment. In 2018, the International Copper Study Group estimated that 32 percent of global copper use came from recycled copper, while the 2018 EoL copper recycling rate in Europe reached almost 50 percent.
In addition to EoL products, industrial residues, or "engineered minerals" generated during the copper smelting and refining processes, also contribute to the circular economy. When these by-products are not landfilled but given new applications, they can bring significant environmental and socio-economic benefits while reducing waste. ECI also supports waste minimization through “urban mining”. Materials in use today, known as "anthropogenic stock", are tomorrow's secondary resources for new products.
ECI welcomes the initiative of the European Commission to revise the Batteries Directive and minimize harmful effects from battery production pollution. Rules from the upcoming Batteries and Waste Batteries Regulation will cover rechargeable industrial and electric vehicle (EV) batteries' full life cycle, ensuring that all batteries are produced in a sustainable manner. ECI supports an increase of investment in the development of better collection, dismantling and sorting technologies, allowing for more cross-industrial cooperation. This will boost the Commission's efforts to reduce landfilling and help with market incentives for increasing recycling rates.
Nevertheless, the role of primary metal production should not be underestimated, especially given the expected increase in copper demand. New EVs will require two to three times more copper than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Additional copper will also be needed for charging infrastructure and renewable energy generation. As a safe, recyclable and resilient material with exceptional electrical and thermal conductivity, copper’s applications in the green transition are expansive. Meanwhile, more and more copper producers are participating in voluntary production assurance schemes, such as the Copper Mark, for responsible mineral sourcing and ethical production.
Regulatory Affairs Specialist