The circular economy is far from circular when it comes to scarce metals

​Many of our modern products, not least electronics, contain a large variety of potentially scarce metals. In his doctoral thesis, Hampus André has examined effects of circular measures, such as long-life design, reuse and repair, on mineral resource scarcity. He has also studied how different ways of prioritizing between mineral resources can affect conclusions drawn regarding circular measures and mineral resource scarcity.

​What challenges do you focus on in your research?

“Many modern products, for example electronics, contain a large variety of metals. These metals may be potentially scarce, both in the short term for current generations and the products we produce and demand, and in longer terms, for future generations. There are great expectations on circular measures to reduce potential mineral resource scarcity but very little knowledge on what the real effects actually are. Basically, can they live up to the expectations or not?”
 
“Because scarcity of natural resources, such as mineral resources, is a concept which is both environmental and economic, it has been persistently debated what the most relevant problem to assess actually is. For instance, is scarcity most likely caused by geological rarity or extraction cost? Another question is how methods ought to be constructed in order to purposively address the different problem formulations.”
 
“Some of my contributions can hopefully clarify some things in such debated questions. This is important in order to be able to address the first mentioned challenge. We cannot reduce mineral resource scarcity if we are not clear with what we mean with terms such as scarcity and if we lack purposive methods which actually assess what we intend to assess.   

How do you address the problem?

  “I have used a life cycle perspective to investigate the real effects of circular measures on the use of metals and potential mineral resource scarcity. This I have done both through case studies with companies whose businesses revolve around e.g. reuse and repair and by reviewing the scientific literature. “
 
“I have also compared different ways of prioritizing between mineral resources in methods which can be used to study effects of circular measures on mineral resource scarcity, such as life cycle assessment, material flow analysis and criticality assessment. Based on this comparison I have suggested how to make such methods more purposive. I have also taken part in the development of such a method which can purposively assess potential long-term scarcity in life cycle assessment.”

What are the main findings of your research?

“Circular measures do not necessarily reduce mineral resource scarcity. For instance, long-life designs and repair can require more metal use or other, potentially more scarce, metals. Depending on which metal uses increase and decrease, mineral resource scarcity can increase or decrease as effects of circular measures compared to “business-as-usual”. Important aspects to be aware of and consider in assessments are for instance how often components are replaced, for how long use can be extended through, for example, repair and design, and the recycling rates.“
 
“The results also depend on which methods are used and their prioritizations between mineral resources. In the short term, the risk for scarcity, and thus prioritizations between resources, depend on aspects such as geopolitics. In the long term, prioritizations between mineral resources rather depend on aspects related to geology. Resources with greatest risk of scarcity in the short term are therefore widely different from the ones with greatest risk in the long term. An important methodological contribution is to clearly distinguish between such different aspects which may cause scarcity in different methods, such as geopolitics in methods with short time frames and geological aspects in methods with long term time frames.”

What do you hope your research will lead to?

“I hope the thesis, by pointing to important aspects to consider in these types of assessments, can guide companies and others in assessing which circular measures could fit their products in order to reduce potential mineral resource scarcity. Partly, such important aspects concern product characteristics, such as product lifetimes, and how often components are replaced. It also concerns methodological aspects. Assessments need to use methods which are distinct in terms of their time frames.”
 
“Potential causes of scarcity in the short term, say related to geopolitics, ought to be kept separate from potential causes of scarcity in the long term, say related to geology. Ultimately, this allows for identifying which metal uses risk to increase as effects of circular measures, making well-informed prioritizations on which metals to decrease the use of, and conversely, which metals to deliberately increase the use of in order to decrease the use of others.”
 

Text compilation: Daniel Karlsson

 
 
The thesis defence will be online on Zoom, 6 October at 10.00, see link on the thesis’ page

More about Hampus André

 

Published: Tue 29 Sep 2020.