Improving the value-chain and sustainability of technology metals for manufacturing and digital technologies has become imperative to a successful green economy. The UKRI-funded Met4Tech project held a roundtable event on Tuesday, July 13th, 2021 to examine regulatory challenges in creating a robust circular economy for technology metals.
Introducing the Met4Tech project, Professor Frances Wall, University of Exeter, explained the importance of specialist metals to digital technologies and particularly how effective utilisation of these metals might sustain the manufacturing industry in the coming decade and beyond. Professor Frances Wall highlighted a key challenge to a circular economy model as the security of supply given that most technology metals currently flow into the UK as finished products.
The first panel of the conference then followed up on this theme by considering global perspectives on a circular economy for technology metals. Dr Ana Bastida, University of Dundee, presented an overview of the current legal and policy stance on mining beginning with the domain of domestic regulation where rights to explore and exploit minerals are concerned under international law principles of sovereignty over natural resources. From there the presentation reviewed global, compounding problems in the extractive industry particularly under pressures of climate change and biodiversity loss and other negative impacts on sustainable development. Dr Bastida suggested the need to develop global regulatory frameworks for mining as opposed to relying solely on domestic law for the necessary governance mechanisms. This ended with a plea for interaction between domestic producers and international agencies in setting the pace for achieving a global circular economy for technology metals.
The next presentation then drew upon the example of the regulatory system for lithium-ion batteries for both vehicular and stationary energy storage. Taylor Curtis, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), explained the barriers to achieving a circular economy for technology metals using the United States as case study. Echoing Frances Wall’s introduction, the first barrier was said to be the significant reliance on imports for materials required for green innovation including battery storage technologies. A second barrier arose out of the high cost of recycling as well as complexities surrounding the law on reuse and recycling of lithium-ion batteries. The applicable laws are often inflexible, making it harder to achieve circular economy for lithium-ion batteries. Thus, reshaping regulatory frameworks is of utmost importance in shaping a circular economy for technology metals.
One area in which international law already plays a part is in WTO mechanisms for governing global trade in technology metals in a context in which there is a limited supply of these metals in commercially viable quantities across the globe. Also from the USA, Professor Heather Van Meter of Williamette addressed supply issues for rare earth metals in the technology industries with reference to WTO rules. She pointed to China’s dominance in the rare earths market and its exercise of significant export controls on rare earth metal production with reference to the WTO trade dispute brought by the United States and European Union before a dispute panel challenging China’s exercise of export controls while increasing domestic production. The export controls being found prima facie to violate WTO free trade principles, Heather went on to explore the permitted exceptions, cited unsuccessfully by China, of protecting human life and health as well as conserving exhaustible natural resources. She highlighted significant regulatory challenges in the United States confirming Taylor Curtis’s key points demonstrating how these posed a major challenge to supply and sustainable management of rare earth metals for technology products.
The second half of the conference explored UK perspectives in developing a national focused approach to circular economy for technology metals. Andrew Bloodworth offered extensive coverage on the supply and demand of critical materials in the UK pointing out that the country has a sizeable manufacturing industry dependent on these critical materials. Andrew outlined the importance of a circular economy approach as an important supply channel for critical materials in the UK for while the supply of materials coming from recycled sources could not satisfy demand, it could contribute to materials security. However, a downside to this supply source is the possibility of inadequate materials in the system together with the inability to keep up with increasing global consumption of these critical materials.
Our next speaker, Sally Norcross-Webb, spoke of her experience as CEO of Cornish Tin in dealing with mineral rights and the challenges that these presented for mineral exploration/exploitation in the UK given the absence of a compulsory registration system and the difficulty in proving ownership of mineral rights. The diversity of ownership and difficulty of proving ownership and the lack of records or systems of registration provides a serious bar to mineral operators seeking to develop projects in the UK. Drawing from her professional experience in the sector, Sally believes that there are fixes in terms of secondary legislations that could be considered which could facilitate the UK taking part in the green industrial revolution. Sally felt that a circular economy beginning with sustainable production is achievable in the UK. The tonnage and high grades of its geo-resources indicates that Cornwall is well placed as the heart of green mining. She cautioned that we cannot achieve this circular economy in the UK without developing onshore smelting facilities powered by sustainable energy, emphasising that it ought to be possible to extract and process minerals in a clean way to help utilise green technologies while operating in a highly regulated environment but with a very light imprint on the environment.
In closing, Dr Jyoti Ahuja shared lessons from the Faraday Project with regards to recycling EV batteries. A major lesson learned is the need to incorporate circular economy thinking from the very beginning and across all stages in building sustainable technology. Most importantly, there is need for promoting regulations aimed at increasing product durability and repair because creating a circular economy is not limited to just the recycling of technology metals. First and a big lesson has been that for sustainable technology, there is need to hardwire circular economy thinking right from the start. In relation to EV batteries, the EU is going to need 18 times more lithium, 5 times more cobalt just in the next four years to continue to build the EV market. At the moment, less than 3% of the rare earth minerals are recycled and supply is a real concern; with China suppling 98% of the EU rare earth market. Attention needs to be given to the regulatory framework – to revisions of waste law; careful considerations of re-use of former EV batteries; and much more work on eco-design to ensure access to critical materials in decommissioned batteries.
This was a first workshop in a subject to which Met4Tech will inevitably return. Past experiences of linear economy models demonstrate that circular systems tend not to form themselves but are the product of incentives and prompts generated, ordinarily, by regulation or other governance mechanisms. We look forward to continuing the debate on just which mechanisms might prove most effective, but, for now, we wish to end by thanking all of our speakers for starting this debate in such an informed and stimulating manner.