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Speech is a powerful tool. It allows us to describe our world and make us understand what is happening around us. The correct choice of words can completely change the way we see things. Sometimes, however, we find ourselves continuing to use the same old terms out of habit even though they no longer reflect the current situation, fall short of reality or are simply wrong. ‘Secondary raw materials’ is just such a term. This expression was first used many years ago – back when people still believed in virtually unlimited growth and an endless supply of raw materials. ‘Primary’ stood for new, good and expensive, ‘secondary’ for used but cheap. We know better now. Our reserves of raw materials are finite and the only things that are enjoying unlimited growth are the world’s population and our environmental problems. Time to have a rethink and select a better choice of word.
“We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”
Albert Einstein ( 1879 – 1955), German American physicist, Nobel Prize 1921
The Austrian poet and philosopher Ernst Ferstl once wrote – loosely translated – “People who act out of habit and get too comfortable on their carpets can hardly expect them to take off and fly”. To continue in the same vein, our tendency to hang on to old expressions is preventing us from adjusting the way we perceive things – something we need to do urgently – and so is getting in the way of us changing the way we behave. We would, therefore, be well advised to stop using the anachronistic term ‘secondary raw materials’ and replace it with a much better description, namely ‘recycled raw materials’. Not an easy task to stop such a firmly established term being used all the time. The only way to persuade people to come round to this idea is to provide them with hard facts and there are more than enough of these around.
Speech not only describes reality, it also shapes it. We need new terms and expressions to get a fresh perspective.
In fact, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that recycled raw materials are far superior to the so-called primary raw materials.
It is often said, with a certain amount of pride, that 14% of the total volume of raw materials needed by manufacturing businesses in Germany are supplied by the recycling sector. Looking at global warming and our environmental problems the question here should really be: Why only 14%?
Hardly any land is consumed to produce recycled raw materials. No-one has to first dig large holes in the ground to extract 500 tonnes of copper ore to produce just one tonne of pure copper. That amount of copper can be found in a good 10 tonnes of e-waste.
Huge amounts of energy are required to produce copper, aluminium, iron and other metals from their various ores, all of which leads to high levels of carbon emissions. A fraction of the energy is needed to produce the same quality of raw materials from recycling processes. Up to 8% of the crude oil processed in Europe every year is used to make plastics. No crude oil is needed for recycled plastic. If the shorter transport routes are also taken into account, then it becomes very clear that all recycled raw materials are a much better and far more sustainable option as far as preventing climate change is concerned. Hardly any land is consumed to produce recycled raw materials. No-one has to first dig large holes in the ground to extract 500 tonnes of copper ore to produce just one tonne of pure copper. That amount of copper can be found in a good 10 tonnes of e-waste.
Companies that purchase recycled raw materials sourced from local volumes of waste are also helping to reduce the overexploitation of raw materials in politically unstable countries with their social inequalities and ineffective environmental laws – and the often catastrophic effects such overexploitation has on local communities and the local environment. Recycled raw materials are raw materials that involve neither child labour nor exploitation.
No matter how many times a metal is smelted down, it remains the same metal with no loss in quality. Even materials, such as paper and plastic, can be recycled efficiently a number of different times and are a suitable and sustainable source material for various types of product, no matter which stage of their life cycle they may be at.
‘That which is postponed is not dropped’ and this also applies to the price of oil and other raw materials. Our planet’s growing population is more than cancelling out any gains in efficiency we may achieve – the so-called rebound effect. Those who wish to continue to have cost-effective and sustainable production processes in the future will have to increase the amount of materials they buy from local, environmentally friendly sources.
Looking at the medium-term picture, industrial locations will only be able to survive, if they have access to affordable raw materials that have been produced with as little impact as possible on both our environment and climate. This is particularly true for countries, such as Germany, that have so few natural raw materials of their own and expect their production activities to meet stringent environmental standards. Recycled raw materials are the only true source for a sustainable future.
A meaningful eco design directive should make it a requirement to use sustainable raw materials. The long-term aim must be for industrial businesses to publish the efforts they are making to achieve sustainable development and for them to announce with pride that they are increasing the amount of recycled raw materials used to make their products. At the end of the day, environmentally responsible consumers want to know whether the product they are using has been produced with clean, sustainable and climate-friendly processes. There really is only one way to meet all these requirements: to use recycled raw materials!