Section 6: Thinking in Systems

Section 6: Thinking in Systems

Introduction … A Global Perspective … A Circular Economy of Metals … The Urban Mine … How Long Will it Take? … A Narrative For the Circular Economy … Narrative For The Circular Economy … In-depth: Critical Materials
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Summaries

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  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.3 A Circular Economy of Metals > 6.3.1 Will a circular economy prevent us from running out of metals?
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.3 A Circular Economy of Metals > 6.3.3 Will a circular economy decrease our environmental impact?
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.4 The Urban Mine > 6.4.1 Exploring the urban mine
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.4 The Urban Mine > 6.4.2 Urban Mining for a Circular Economy
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.5 How Long Will it Take? > 6.5.1 How long will it take to reach a circular economy? (1/3)
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.5 How Long Will it Take? > 6.5.2 How long will it take to reach a circular economy? (2/3)
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.5 How Long Will it Take? > 6.5.3 How long will it take to reach a circular economy? (3/3)
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.8 In-depth: Critical Materials > 6.8.2 What are critical materials?
  • 6. Thinking in Systems > 6.8 In-depth: Critical Materials > 6.8.3 Solving the critical materials problem

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.2 A Global Perspective > 6.2.2 Taking the Circular Economy to the Next Level

  • In the previous episodes we have seen that the circular economy can be looked at from a lot of different angles and that there are many challenges for many different disciplines.
  • What will happen at the world scale if we go towards a circular economy.
  • What will the circular economy solve? We can get lost in all kinds of details of how it should be achieved.
  • Those are the mines of the circular economy, and we’ll explain what we mean by that in the second clip.
  • How long will it take before we actually reach a circular economy? And we’ll be using metals as an example.
  • They’re also ideal from the point of view of the circular economy, because they, as elements, they do not degrade and they can be recycled, at least theoretically, for very many times.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.3 A Circular Economy of Metals > 6.3.1 Will a circular economy prevent us from running out of metals?

  • Now we are going to discuss why we actually should move towards a circular economy.
  • What problem actually will be solved by going towards a circular economy of metals? Well, a circular economy means, of course, use less resources, or at least, take less resources out of the environment.
  • Because we keep them in the economy for a longer time, we may need less new materials.
  • It’s possible that we are running out of certain materials and that the circular economy may help prevent that.
  • By keeping the materials in the economy for a longer time it’s possible that we have less environmental impact.
  • So the circular economy for this point of view is really not needed.
  • Well, these supply problems were not really caused by geological scarcity, not because we didn’t have any of those metals left, but the reason was geopolitics.
  • The supply depends on only a few mines in the world and if anything happens to those mines, or to the country where the mines are, then it may be that the supply is disrupted.
  • It does point to one of the potential benefits of the circular economy.
  • If you access the urban mines instead of the geological mines, you spread the supply, so the world is not dependent on a few mines only.
  • Unlike geological mines, urban mines are available and accessible in each and every country.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.3 A Circular Economy of Metals > 6.3.3 Will a circular economy decrease our environmental impact?

  • Now there has been a study regarding the environmental impacts of metals commissioned by the United Nations International Resource Panel.
  • The first one is that metals are indeed very energy intensive materials.
  • In the future, that is the second conclusion of that report, the metal demand is expected to rise, and to go up steeply during the coming decades.
  • The third relevant conclusion, is that the energy intensity of the metals is expected to increase as well.
  • Here we see a picture of the energy requirement of metals production in megajoules per kilogram of metal.
  • That’s the largest one, uses 200 MJ per kg, while steel, that is only about 20 MJ per kg of metal so there are differences per metal.
  • If you would compare metals to other materials you would still see that even steel is quite an energy intensive material.
  • If you multiply that with the global production of these metals you get the total global energy use for metals and that is the 7 to 8 percent of the total global energy production that I talked about earlier.
  • Therefore the demand for metals will go up and the demand for energy that we need to produce them also goes up.
  • Wind energy, even biofuels, bio energy, all those renewable energies, they need more metals than the classic fossil fuel energy systems.
  • The third conclusion has to do with the energy intensity of metal production.
  • As I’ve said: metals are quite energy intensive materials.
  • The ore grade is the metal content in the ores in percentages.
  • So an ore grade of 1 means that in the ore there is 1 percent of metal.
  • The lower the ore grade, we can see that in the picture here, the more energy is needed to produce the metal.
  • Ore grades for several metals have been going down, for a variety of reasons.
  • Now the secondary production of metals, which is the production of metals out of scrap and waste, uses less energy than primary production.
  • So a lot of energy is needed to liberate the metals from their ores and to concentrate and refine them.
  • For waste metal products, well, they have already gone through that process, so this can reduce energy requirements per kilogram of metal.
  • It is in fact the only way to really reduce the energy requirements of metal production.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.4 The Urban Mine > 6.4.1 Exploring the urban mine

  • So there’s a lot of copper in the ground, in those ores, but there’s also a lot of copper above the ground in all kinds of applications: in cables, in wires, and whatever.
  • Urban mines is a rather new idea, it’s a new idea to look at the economy as a geologist, not as an economist and looking for those stocks.
  • There has been a first investigation by the International Resource Panel where people have looked into, well, how big are these stocks at a global scale? And then it appeared that there was almost no information, that only for a very few metals they could actually come up with an indication of the size of these stocks.
  • So that’s one: the size of the stock, so we know what we have and what we can access in the future.
  • Well, and then a second aspect is related to the lifespans.
  • Well if you look at mines in the ground, there’s always a huge investigation by those geologists, they look where it is but they also look at the concentration of the metal in the ore.
  • In some cases the concentrations are very high, in other cases they’re very low, like for example precious metals or rare earth metals in mobile phones, they’re only in very small quantities and it is much more difficult to get them out than to recycle copper wires, for example, where the copper is nicely concentrated.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.4 The Urban Mine > 6.4.2 Urban Mining for a Circular Economy

Well, we do it to some extent, there is actually a lot of recycling already happening.

We have to make some sort of a mining plan for those stocks to, well, to be able to know what we can mine, when.

When it becomes waste, well then to some extent metals are recycled because, of course, they are valuable materials.

The mining plan, the looking at the stocks in society as potential sources of material that doesn’t happen yet.

When will it become available? We have to think about new technologies for the recycling.

We have to think about new ways to design the applications so that these metals can be recycled better.

We have even to think about designing new materials so they can be recycled better.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.5 How Long Will it Take? > 6.5.1 How long will it take to reach a circular economy? (1/3)

  • Previously we have seen that a circular economy uses much less energy and causes less emissions and less waste.
  • A circular economy that is an economy where all material comes, or most material comes, from secondary production.
  • Secondary production is the production of materials from scrap and from waste.
  • That’s an economy where the stocks do not grow anymore and where the flows are only there to maintain that stock at a certain size.
  • You could also see a little bit of slackening in the growth during the 70s, and this is due to the, well, stabilisation of the stock in the OECD countries.
  • With the emerging economies coming up, you see that it grows again and it grows really very fast.
  • This will happen if the world population no longer grows and if the demand per person no longer grows.
  • The world population, well, at present is growing very rapidly, but in all kinds of scenarios for the future you see that they sort of account for the world population to stop growing at a certain moment in time.
  • The next thing that we need, of course, is that we have to cover this stabilised demand by secondary production and this happens when we boost the recycling rates really close to 100 percent and at the moment that the stock is saturated.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.5 How Long Will it Take? > 6.5.2 How long will it take to reach a circular economy? (2/3)

  • If we look at aluminium we see that the global aluminium end of life recycling rate is, well, it’s about 50 percent.
  • Well, the large scale metals such as steel or copper or aluminium, recycling rates are already substantial.
  • In the European countries we are close to 90 percent for recycling rate for aluminium.
  • When these applications go into the economy you see that there are really long delays due to the lifespan of the applications.
  • It’s used in buildings and buildings live for, well, sometimes even 50 years.
  • So when a certain amount of aluminium flows into the economy it takes time before it gets to the waste stage.
  • If we combine those two assumptions we see that the demand will stabilise around 2080.
  • Assuming a lifespan of 30 years, the equilibrium situation will then have been reached 30 years after 2080, so in 2110.
  • Population will stabilise, the demand per person will also stabilise by itself if people get rich enough, so that’s indeed under optimistic assumptions.
  • There are various options also discussed in the earlier episodes like reuse, repair, remanufacturing, this can lengthen the lifespan of the applications and therefore reduce the demand.
  • The equilibrium situation with a certain stock will be established with a smaller inflow and a smaller outflow.
  • You can see also that the delay will be longer and therefore it will take longer for the circular economy to establish itself.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.5 How Long Will it Take? > 6.5.3 How long will it take to reach a circular economy? (3/3)

  • The benefit of a circular economy are quite clear.
  • You see that for aluminium demand has sort of tripled, until 2100, but that the primary input that we need for that has actually been reduced to 30 percent of the present level.
  • We’ve calculated that and, well, the energy requirement for the new, very high level aluminium stock is only 50 percent of the present one.
  • We will have to educate people in different ways.
  • Ways that are now, only, well, that are not very clear yet.
  • Probably it will take at least as long as waiting for stock saturation to happen.
  • That means that the circular economy agenda is a huge agenda with a very long time horizon.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.8 In-depth: Critical Materials > 6.8.2 What are critical materials?

  • Various people have defined what critical materials are.
  • Various countries have defined what critical materials are.
  • Various academics have defined what critical materials are.
  • There are when we move into the area of what we might term as ‘more critical, and more extremely critical materials’ some commonalities.
  • My research is more interested in the metal elements, and we’ve heard about metals and the challenges and opportunities in the circular economy with metals.
  • How do we define them, what are the axes we use? well typically a lot of governments have said ”if a material has insecurity of supply or risk of insecurity of supply, and if it is of high economic importance to a country, then they put it, and if it’s high on both axes they say it is a critical material.
  • I quite like the work of people like Thomas Graedel in Yale, and others of course, who have put a third axes on this and say about environmental impact of these materials.
  • In truth it’s a wide range of materials and other materials as well, not just metals, but other materials as well.
  • So as just a recap: what is a critical material? Supply risk is high, economic importance is high and environmental impact is high.
  • Of course there’s a spread of those that can be lower in some axes and higher in others and it still falls in as critical.
  • If we take the European Union for example, in 2010 they published a large report on defining what critical materials was.
  • We see there that the demand will and should rise as we want to reduce CO2 emissions, but then that also presents us with new challenges on how are we going to get a world of 7 to 11 billion people, with a rising middle class, answering these grand challenges, needing more critical materials to solve it, without having the abundance of these materials that we would want in the world.

6. Thinking in Systems > 6.8 In-depth: Critical Materials > 6.8.3 Solving the critical materials problem

  • Do we have concrete evidence that that can be done, have we had research conducted demonstrating clearly that if you did strategy x and strategy y in society that it would begin to reduce the insecurity of supply, that it would reduce the economic importance and it would reduce the environmental impact, well that evidence is less.
  • I would like to see that research done to prove the case.

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