The hunt for secondary raw materials: a rich harvest
17. 2 .2023,
As the population continues to grow, so does the demand for raw materials needed for everyday life (Steiger 2020). To meet future raw material needs and to comply with the European Green Deal, the supply of sustainable raw materials could open new doors.
What is green sourcing?
Sustainable procurement and its broad potential
Sustainable (or green) sourcing is the procurement of products or services in a more environmentally sustainable way. In this context, the supply chain can be checked and adapted for shorter transport routes or more equal working conditions. But also the complete or partial switch from raw to secondary materials in production is part of a sustainable sourcing strategy and can reduce a company’s greenhouse gas emissions in a scalable and long-term way.
Recycling plays an important role, for example, for metals such as lithium, due to the increasing demand in the e-mobility sector, a wide variety of recycling ideas are being developed. In Norway, the company Hydrovolt is already processing up to 95 per cent of secondary raw materials in the battery and reusing them for new batteries.
In Germany there is potential for a sustainable supply of metals. Although a shortage of materials has not been predicted, their access is hampered by ethical, political and economic factors. One possibility is the supply of secondary metals, by-products of zinc, copper and aluminium mining. In copper production, the share of secondary raw materials in Germany is already 41% (Steiger 2015 p. 5). Due to Germany’s large export quota, important raw materials are being lost, making the reintroduction of imported products into the cycle even more relevant. Furthermore, due to the increasing demand for materials, a market for recycled plastics is increasingly developing. Companies sell their by-products or plastic waste on platforms such as CYRKL; the material is not recycled for energy or landfilled, but reused. Companies specialising in processing plastics obtain cheaper products and can resell their regrind.
How can green sourcing contribute to the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)?
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is a principle whereby producers are also responsible for areas adjacent to the product. These areas may include packaging, transport, disposal or the supply chain. In this way, some areas overlap with the themes of ESG principles (more on this in this article).
In Germany, EPR principles are already established by law, in particular in three sub-areas: Packaging, Electronics and Batteries. In this context, not only companies that produce the respective product in Germany (i.e. the packaging, the smartphone or the battery) are considered manufacturers. German retailers selling such products and even foreign retailers offering such products in Germany are also affected by the EPR requirements.
Green sourcing can help companies to replace used raw materials with secondary raw materials in a sustainable and economical way. In addition, it is possible to search the market for end-of-life waste from their products in order to assess the potential of a take-back system or closed-loop solution. If intermediate steps or partners are needed to process or examine materials, a fundamental principle of the circular economy can be applied: cooperation. These framework conditions allow companies in any sector and of any size to practise extended producer responsibility.
For which sectors EPR could be interesting in the future
Extended Producer Responsibility has not yet been defined at European level and the implementation of the principles therefore depends on the member states and their respective capabilities. In Germany, there are corresponding guidelines for producers and traders of packaging, electrical appliances and batteries, but even these guidelines differ depending on the product. Given the larger and more problematic waste streams globally, it is likely that the EPR principles will soon cover other product groups.
Construction and demolition industry
The construction industry accounts for the largest share of waste generation in Germany by a wide margin. In 2015, 209 million tonnes of waste could be attributed to this sector, 400 times the amount of used tyres in the same year. In 2019, the amount of construction and demolition waste increased further to 230 million tonnes. Due to the huge volume of materials and raw materials required and the associated greenhouse gas emissions, the entire construction sector is focusing on waste reduction and resource scarcity.
The company Lindner SE is specialised, among other things, in products for interior construction. As part of a green sourcing project, Cyrkl sought sources of supply for one of its products: raised floor panels. With this initiative, the international company demonstrates a special responsibility for its products’ life cycle in the sense of EPR.
In addition to the volume of waste, the textile industry also has a negative influence on global water consumption, e.g. through the release of microplastics into the environment. According to the European Parliament, about 10% can be traced back to the production of clothing and footwear. Globally, only 1% of all textile products are recycled, with the result that most textile waste is incinerated or landfilled.
According to the Federal Environment Agency, the volume of used tyres in Germany was over 500,000 tonnes in 2015. This means that used tyres are not one of the largest waste streams, but recycling is very complex. Used tyres and their components are often processed for thermal recycling in cement plants.
The tyre manufacturer Pirelli has a separate section in its supplier portal dedicated to its green sourcing policy. The group not only wants to motivate companies in its supply chain to adopt responsible decisions and practices, but also to act as a multiplier.
Considering the waste streams mentioned and their size, it is probable that the managers and/or producers of these product groups will soon have to take responsibility.
"The increasing scarcity of raw materials and the politically unstable situation are forcing more and more companies to become more flexible in their choice of starting materials. More flexible in this context means replacing primary raw materials, those starting out without previous processing, with secondary raw materials, those already processed in some form. This forced inversion has a positive effect on the environment and makes the circular economy increasingly popular. By using secondary raw materials in the production process, resources are conserved and energy and CO2 are saved. Since political pressure on manufacturing companies continues to grow and they are measured by their actions, the trade in secondary raw materials is booming."
Benedikt Kroll, DACH consultant