The EU commits to a Circular Economy

Screen shot 2012-12-20 at 01.17.48

This is a press release you probably missed. On December 17th, the EU issued a press statement confirming its commitment to transition towards a circular economy:

“In a world with growing pressures on resources and the environment, the EU has no choice but to go for the transition to a resource-efficient and ultimately regenerative circular economy.”

Resource efficiency isn’t new to the EU, and over the past decade this topic has gained strength and attention in discussion and debate. Europe 2020 is the EU’s growth strategy for the following decade, building on lessons learned from its predecessor the Lisbon Strategy. EU 2020 focusses on helping its members states to build “smart, sustainable and inclusive economies”. This strategy has produced other key documents, such as the The Road to a Resource Efficient Europe.

However, UK residents will know that the politics of climate change are complicated and convoluted at a national level, let alone a continental level. It remains to be seen how the Manifesto for a Resource Efficient Europe will be implemented and how member states will react.

Elsewhere in the world 


china energyCurrently, China is the only other country to have integrated the transition to a more circular economy in its economic development strategy. China has seized the opportunity to tackle economic instability, use of natural resources and environmental degradation through a systemic “root-and-branch” restructuring of its economy, becoming the world’s first country to adopt closed-loop economic principles (Mathews et al. 2011). Historically, China’s growth has been driven by abundant and cheap resources, which is likely to change (ibid.). Therefore the objective is to shift to a new growth model, namely one that maximises GDP, and protects natural resources to maintain long-term economic stability (Zhijun & Nailing, 2007).

Announced in its 12th Five Year Plan, China’s strategy seeks to solve both the waste and resource issues at source and to “minimise the throughputs of both energy and materials” (Zhijun & Nailing, 2007). The Chinese government has begun with implementing the Circular Economy at an Industrial level, having approved the development of 30 Eco-Industrial Parks based on circular economy principles.

Here is a link to a good summary of environmental implications of the 12th Fiver Year Plan. 


sustentavelsitioHaving carried out my MSc thesis research on the opportunity for a circular economy in Brazil, I was startled to find little research having been carried out on resource efficiency in the Brazilian economy. The truth is that Brazil benefits from vast material, labour and land resources, rendering the concept of scarcity not a priority.

However, the Brazilian government recently launched the National Action Plan on Sustainable Production and Consumption (PPCS).

The PPCS aims to take a systems-based view, acting as a central link between seven other government action plans, the UNEP and international conventions, agreements and environmental bodies to advance sustainable production and consumption.

Key priorities include:

  1. Education for sustainable consumption
  2. Sustainable public procurement
  3. Embedding the environmental agenda into public policy
  4. Increasing solid waste recycling
  5. Sustainable retail
  6. Sustainable built environment

A radical strategy? 

However, in terms of a more radical shift to sustainable production, the Brazilian PPCS fails to acknowledge the need to close the loop on material and energy throughput, and the need for changing production cycles is left by the wayside. Objectives for use of renewable energy and water efficiency are related to either retail shops or construction only, rather than production. What’s more, innovation for sustainable production is barely cited, which is key to shifting Brazilian industry to greener and cleaner production.

Positive direction

Every strategy ever produced has always fallen short of something, depending on one’s point of view. However, all three strategies cited here recognise the need for more sustainable economic, production and consumption models. It remains to be seen whether economies choose to adopt a protectionist agenda in the face of commodity price rises, or choose to collaborate to share resources and achieve greater resource and energy efficiency along supply chains.

Update on resource conflicts

Following my last post on 21st century gold rushes and growing tensions regarding geopolitics, I am somewhat pleased to announce that China has in fact increased its quota to export rare earth minerals.

The act follows some hefty complaining from the USA, the EU and Japan, who filed a trade complaint to the World Trade Organisation

An article from the Wall Street Journal, however, explains how this move is somewhat vacuous, given that demand for Chinese rare earth metals fell this year.

It’s possible to predict that this move will merely “buy us more time” for now, given that China’s rare earth metals are finite and our demand for them is infinite.

As I pointed out in the last blog post, continuous mining won’t solve the problem of depleting natural resources, and the challenge lies in decoupling this trend from economic growth. My next blog post will look at the principles of the Circular Economy and how it can be employed as a strategy to solve this very conundrum.

A glimpse of future conflicts? The modern gold rush

The high content of rare materials within electrical and electronic devices demonstrates a rising problem of resource scarcity and geopolitics. Consumption of electronics is on a high, and is set to grow exponentially as more consumers join the ranks of the middle class.

In 2007 the combined sales of mobile phones and personal computers represented 3% of global supply of silver and gold, 13% of palladium and 15% of copper.

A PwC report highlighted the growing demand and consumption of these materials as one of the most important drivers for resource scarcity. The same report by PwC highlighted the importance of minerals and metals scarcity as a top priority for 78% of business executives from the high-tech industry.

Geopolitics also plays an important role, as the risk is that resource nationalism becomes self-fueling, and that concerns about the security of supply translate into increased protectionism, less integrated resource markets, and therefore increased uncertainty over price volatility and supply.

China is largely responsible for mining the 17 rare earth metals used to fuel our digital economy. Since announcing that it would export less of these, this has raised many European eyebrows and shifted glances towards Greenland. Unfortunately for the EU, it is completely dependent on imports for 14 out of 17 minerals known as “rare earths”. With thawing of Greenland ice famously underway, European politicians are keen on getting ahead of Chinese competition. Mining has harmful social and environmental consequences if not appropriately regulated. Unfortunately for Greenland, the policies and the regulation framework are largely not in place or appropriately developed yet. Greenland currently lacks the ability to control the behaviour of mining companies, if several were to being operating soon.

Forget Greenland, landfills are the mines of the future

As a quick reminder, there is more gold in a tonne of discarded mobile phones than a tonne of gold mine ore. Mining new materials is a strategy, but it’s an archaic strategy. A more long-term approach to resource security might be to close the loop on materials flow and change our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. For instance, is it sustainable to own 2 mobile phones and replace them every 2 years, whilst not disposing of them correctly?

Regarding electronics, this means getting consumers to dig out the mobile phones they’ve left to dust in drawers and return it to producers, to extract the copper, palladium, gold and other rare earth metals. The EU has already legislated as the Extended Producer Responsiblity under the European WEEE Directive.

Excitingly, Brazil introduced its first national law on solid waste that obliges reverse supply chains to be created for electronics. What’s interesting, unlike the EU where the onus is on the producer to bring the product back to the manufacturer, in Brazil everyone is responsible: the consumer, the retailer, the distributor and the producer. This shared responsibility is set to mobilise hundreds of electronics back to the original manufacturer, where it will be recycled and disposed of correctly.

However, this is for future production. Last year 1.6 billion new phones were introduced into the global market. What’s more, 40 million tonnes of e-waste was produced, of which merely 20% was recycled properly. Huge amounts of e-waste already exist and many electronics have not yet entered the waste stream.

There is huge potential to close the loop on electronics and make materials savings. Keeping copper in circulation is a lot more valuable than sending it to landfill after it was used for 2 years in a mobile phone or as copper wire for electronics.

We should adjust how we value landfills and recognise that one day landfills will become a source for materials. Unfortunately, for now it seems that we prefer to mine unexplored areas before tackling the underlying root causes: our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption.

How mobile phones are 280 billion cars and 5,600 atomic bombs

I started looking at the production, use and disposal of electronic goods to figure out the environmental impacts along each of these stages. I found a paper that revealed just how much energy it takes to produce a mobile phone, which analysed the four processes involved in mobile phone production. The final result: the production of one mobile phone is equal to the energy of 175 one-tonne vehicles moving at 100 mph (source at the end of post).

Last year 1.6 billion phones were produced globally, with 60% of production coming from China.

Energy use breakdown

Here’s the joulific breakdown of energy required to produce a phone. Manufacturing mobile phones occurs in four stages, listed below.

    1. Materials extraction 23MJ
    2. Component manufacturing 120MJ
    3. Assembly 2MJ
    4. Packaging & transport 30MJ


Measuring the energy in joules- bite size recap

The units used for measuring energy use is joules. A joule represents the work done in applying a force required to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a rate of one metre per second, per second (no type here). What on earth does this mean?

Here are some practical examples, straight from Wiki-P:

One joule in everyday life is approximately:

      • the energy required to lift a small apple one metre straight up. (A mass of about 102 g)
      • the energy released when that same apple falls one metre to the ground.
      • the energy released as heat by a person at rest, every 1/60th of a second.
      • the kinetic energyof a 50 kg human moving very slowly (0.2 m/s).
      • the kinetic energy of a tennis ball moving at 23 km/h (14 mph).

A mega joule is equivalent to one million joules, or more practically:

“the kinetic energy of a one-tonne vehicle moving at 160 km/h (100 mph)” (Wikipedia again).

Kinetic energy refers to the energy an object possesses when it’s in motion, so the energy needed to get it from a stationary to a moving state.

Global scale

Last year 1.6 billion phones were put on the market (UNEP), which required the following amount of energy for production: 1.6billion * 175MJ = 280 petajoules. The total global production of mobile phones thus requires an amount of energy equivalent to accelerate nearly 280 billion Volkswagen Golfs from 0 to 100mph. Bear in mind there are currently ‘only’ 1 billion cars in the world.


Volkswagen Golf Mk5, weight 1.3 tonnes

UPDATE [20th July]

Producing 1.6 billion phones each year requires 280 Petajoules of energy, equivalent to the energy released from approximately 5600 Hiroshima bombs (280 Petajoules / 50 Terajoules). All with some help from my engineering friends.

The Hiroshima nuclear bomb released roughly 50 Terajoules energy.

These figures don’t even include the energy required in the use, nor in the disposal of mobile phones. Take into consideration that we replace our mobile devices on average every 18-24 months. Even before we throw the phone away, we keep them in storage at home for at least 2 years before we chuck it, hopefully, into an appropriate waste stream. Storage delays recycling, which means we can’t substitute virgin materials with resources we could’ve otherwise have extracted from old mobile phones.

What to do?

Research shows that holding onto phones for longer reduces their environmental impact. So keep your mobile phone for as long as you can, until it breaks and can’t be repaired. Most people stop using their phone before it’s reached its end of life. Once you wish to throw it away, make sure you give it up to an appropriate programme where it can be treated properly.

Storing electronics influences the amount of products entering the waste stream before they can be appropriately treated. Nokia published results on a survey on how many mobile phones ended up in storage before being disposed of, which revealed the difficulty in collecting mobile phones, as nearly half were kept in home drawers (Cobbing, 2008) and merely 5% were collected for end of life treatment:

  • 48% kept in storage
  • 27% traded in for a new phone through vendor
  • 13% passed on to another person
  • 7% did something else
  • 3% national collection
  • 2% recycled through Nokia take back points

Envirofone, Mazuma and Pound4Phone are all highly rated mobile phone recycling services that are easy and simple to use.

I’m certainly a little sad about my phone taking up quite so much energy, but I have been using this little simple thing when I go travelling over the past 5 years and it’s still going strong. No obsolescence here (as compared to the iPhone I also own… woe betide the age of communication).

Source for MJ figures: Analysis of material and energy consumption of mobile phones in China, Jinglei Yu, Eric Williams , Meiting Ju 


Gotta keep it up