Accelerating the transition towards a circular economy for metals: opportunities for innovation
Damien Paul Giurco, Elsa Dominish, Samantha Sharpe, Benjamin Madden, Simon Wright, Monique Retamal, Nick Florin
UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, Australia
The transition towards a circular economy is occurring through both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. At a high level, there are circular economy policies in Europe and Asia plus a focus on responsible production and consumption in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, whilst on the ground innovation is being scaled up through global knowledge networks.
For the first time, this paper reports on the ultimate findings of a four year international research program – the Wealth from Waste Cluster – aimed at accelerating the transition towards a circular economy for metals.
The research program spanned (i) the identification of global stocks and flows of metals available for urban mining to (ii) the identification of socio-technical enablers in the collection and processing of e-waste in Australia to and (iii) the potential for new business models (such as leasing) to foster the transition and support innovation. The multi-disciplinary collaboration undertook dialogue with a range of stakeholders throughout the research to strengthen impact.
Using a multiple case-study focus, it was found that compact micro-factories for processing e-waste can be economic at the scale of 30,000 tonnes per annum; household behaviour patterns for hoarding e-waste can inform new GIS based estimates of above-ground stocks for rare earths and whilst product and even metal leasing offers theoretical potential for more closed loop management, challenges remain, particularly with the rapid rise in the deployment of solar and battery storage systems which may not have been effectively designed for recycling and reuse. The research also found an important leadership role for government in partnering with industry and researchers to lead the transition.