A real circular economy needs to address the challenge of scrap flow
Aluminium will play a major role in delivering the European Commission’s circular economy ambitions; therefore we must retain our existing resources in the face of high international demand - particularly scrap aluminium, writes Gerd Götz.
The European Commission’s recent package to create a Circular Economy has rightly been widely welcomed. If successful, it will allow the EU to make a substantial contribution in the battle against climate change. It will also help to redefine business models and boost innovation across industrial value chains in Europe.
The intrinsic properties of aluminium - lightweight, barrier protection and endlessly recyclability - make it a perfect material for the circular economy. Demand for aluminium is steadily increasing; it is highly attractive for a wide range of applications in low-carbon mobility, resource efficient packaging and energy efficient buildings.
One vital component of the circular economy proposal is the emphasis on capturing the potential of waste materials. Europe already depends more on imported raw materials than any other continent. Increasing levels of waste recycling will reduce Europe’s dependency on imports and maximise the use of existing resources.
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This is one of many reasons why aluminium will be central to the EU’s circular economy ambitions. One of its key properties is a capacity for infinite recycling without loss of quality. Indeed, almost 75 per cent of all aluminium ever produced is still in use today. Our industry has been following a circular approach for many years.
However, given the increasing demand for aluminium, Europe increasingly faces competition for this valuable resource. Aluminium scrap exports have averaged 15 per cent growth since 2004. In 2014, around one million tonnes of scrap aluminium was exported from the EU.
If the European industry had access to the exported aluminium scrap, recycled aluminium within Europe could be close to 10 per cent higher than current levels. At the same time, it would save the equivalent of the entire energy consumption of Luxembourg or Latvia for an entire year. This would make a massive contribution to meeting the EU’s climate change and sustainability ambitions.
Retaining scrap within the EU for reprocessing, thus leveraging our recycling capacity to the maximum, will deliver substantial benefits and significant steps in achieving a circular economy. For this reason, it is vital that the circular economy package includes concrete measures to encourage recycling in Europe while preventing scrap leakage.
There are a number of actions needed to address this. Firstly, higher investment in Europe’s own collection and sorting infrastructure could reduce the amount of scrap exported.
Secondly, encouraging greater free movement of scrap for recycling within the EU would ensure the efficient use of existing and modern recovery facilities in neighbouring countries.
Thirdly, European environment, health and safety standards should be the benchmark for recycling facilities and used to ensure better-enforced free and fair trade with competing regions.
Finally, enhancing cooperation between member states, beyond legislative requirements, will be fundamental. We need better monitoring of scrap flows, to provide improved insight of what comes in and out of the EU. We also need to tackle illegal exports of waste. This is a fundamental issue and a shortfall for the European economy.
That is why the next steps will be vital. The European Parliament and EU Member States now have the responsibility of reviewing these proposals and ensuring they are fit for purpose.
Translating them into an efficient, achievable policy framework will take the right mindset and level of recycling ambition. It will take a global vision, with real ambition, balanced against the realities of national infrastructures and capabilities.
It will also take the will to ensure the measures agreed are effectively monitored and enforced at all levels.
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