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Modern life is resource-intensive. We help ourselves to whatever our planet provides and ignore the fact that the Earth’s resources are finite. Future generations will be the ones to suffer from the lavish way we handle our resources. It is, therefore, high time that a long-term resource strategy is drawn up that creates a future-oriented recycling economy and brings about a change in attitude of each and every individual.
Most people have lost track of what they really need. They have no idea what they have in their boxes, drawers and cupboards. The business magazine “brand eins” decided to look into this in more detail – and visited an architect to see just what she had in her home. The result: she owned 3,506 objects of which she used just 26 percent regularly. 47 percent of the objects were never used. This example aims to show the following: whenever we talk about raw materials, supplies of raw materials and raw material shortages, whenever we think about recycling and how to close material cycles, we are also discussing our own lifestyle. Modern merchandise management and modern lifestyles are based on a rapid throughput of materials – from (raw) materials, to products, to waste. It is true that there have been a number of considerable successes in the area of waste segregation and recycling – especially in Germany. When it comes to having a recycling economy and to using secondary raw materials, however, we are still at the very beginning of what is needed and what is possible.
On our way to setting up a sustainable recycling economy, we not only need to change our technology and institutions, we also need to start by changing the attitude of private individuals. It is essential that everyone knows about all the materials that shape their lifestyle and the history of these materials. To this effect, the Chair of Resource Strategy has developed a concept called “Material Histories” which combines our everyday actions with the spatio-temporal dimensions of supply chains and their effect on biospheres, geospheres and technospheres.
The idea of limitless resource-intensive growth is out of sync with out planet’s natural energy and material reserves.
The move towards industrialisation also set the course for mass production and mass consumption. Today, we have access to an unprecedented volume of consumer goods that come from all around the world and are available whenever we want them. Whereas, in the past, colonial goods such as coffee, sugar and tobacco were a luxury and a status symbol, nowadays, practically everyone living in the western countries can afford a new mobile every couple of years, a new television or some other piece of electronic equipment. The downside to this ‘trickle-down effect’ – besides private households going ever deeper into debt – is the three to seven kilos of waste electrical and electronic equipment generated by each person each year. Old mobiles, for example, are either lying forgotten at the back of drawers or even thrown into the residual waste bin. Even if the volumes are very small, each device contains a great diversity of valuable metals: more than 40 metals can be found in a single mobile – from base metals such as tin and copper, to gold, silver and palladium.
Changing the way we handle our resources is of huge importance – socially, economically and ecologically.
This mobility of goods, the growing demand for rare metals to produce new energy technology and not least the fact that global population will have reached 9 billion by 2050 all make it necessary for long-term resource strategies to be drawn up based on criticality assessments. The development of suitable concepts to assess the criticality of raw materials – regarding the requirements and risks of specific players, technologies and functions – will, therefore, play an important role both in research work and in societies dependent on the resources.
We already know that Germany does not own large volumes of metal ore. We are also aware that mining can have a damaging effect on the environment, that it involves huge energy costs and that it can cause social conflicts. Not all reserves of raw materials will be able to cover future demand and not all raw materials can be substituted with other substances. In addition, important functional materials – such as the so-called “spice metals” – are at risk of being lost forever: indium, germanium and neodymium are, in some cases, spread so thinly onto other materials that they are unable to be recovered for re-use.
Our aim must be to make sure that resources are available both now and in the future.
Our aim must be to make sure that resources are available both now and in the future by conserving our natural reserves and increasing efficiency. Moreover, we need to ensure that the resources we have are distributed fairly and that future generations are added to the equation. This has all been discussed for many years now as can be seen by the many reports in the media. A paradigm shift, however, is not only needed in the way we handle metals but in the way we handle all the resources available to us.
The ecological footprint calculated by the Global Footprint Network has made it very clear that we our living on credit, i.e. our planet is unable to replenish the amount of resources we are using up. Solutions here are sustainable growth and a recycling economy with closed material cycles. One of the greatest challenges of our modern high-tech society is to reintroduce and adopt natural material cycles. Our goal must be to design consumer and technical processes and products so that the materials used can be recovered; the take-back systems that have already been set up must be re-examined to improve their economic and ecological accountability and practicality. This is the only way to prevent the many elements of the periodic system, which we mobilised, from disappearing forever as a result of dissipative processes and short-sighted thinking.
Prof. Dr. Armin Reller
heads the Chair of Resource Strategy at the University of Augsburg and is board spokesman of the WZU (Environment Science Centre)
is a research assistant and Ph.D. student in the post-graduate programme: “Strategic resource concepts for future energy systems”