Demand for Rare Minerals and Metals Creates Eco-Dilemma

Martinez claims that such consumer consciousness is a barrier to the creation of a materials flow system that could breathe new life into our old junk and scrap. She goes on to add:

“We must re-evaluate our attitudes to electronic products. As consumers we must take responsibility for our own homes and consumption. And our politicians must grasp the nettle and take responsibility for introducing measures that encourage recycling as the preferred option”.

Ana Maria Martinez is demanding that politicians promote more progressive directives that encourage lifestyles and business practices that are in step with circular economy principles.  In practice, this is all about reducing our materials consumption and introducing higher levels of co-use. It means manufacturing products that can be recycled. It means creating effective waste treatment schemes and, not least, it means ensuring that recyclable materials become the natural choice as components for the new products that we manufacture.

We Need Return Logistics in All Sectors
Ana Maria Martinez is conducting research into new technologies that will enable the recovery of valuable materials from waste streams. At the other, manufacturing, end of the products’ life cycles, Stine Sonen Tveit is researching into so-called return logistics. She agrees with Martinez.

“It makes economic sense to put effective return logistics systems in place”, says Sonen Tveit. “This often starts as early as in the design phase. We have to start designing products with ultimate disassembly and recycling in mind”, she says.

Sonen Tveit and her colleagues have developed a strategy for the return and recycling of furniture items. She is keen to emphasize how vital it is to standardize components in order to simplify repair, sorting and recycling, and that companies in a variety of sectors should collaborate to recover the value contained in the products for which we no longer have any use.

“There are many companies in Norway that have the circular economy in mind and are looking to manufacture goods more sustainably”, she says. “But without any express demand in the market, consumer awareness or regulatory requirements, small- and medium- sized businesses will not be able to convert their ambitions into action. This is where Norway is lagging behind many countries in the EU”, she says.

Massive Need for Minerals and New Knowledge
Research Director Lars Sørum at SINTEF Industry recently took part in a seminar on seabed minerals at which some of Norway’s leading scientists were brought together with international experts.

“After attending the seminar it became very clear to me that we need more knowledge, and that we need to get hold of it fast”, he says.

The reason why the world demands large volumes of minerals is so that it can achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050. This is set out in detail in the IEA report that addresses this issue.

We must protect life in the oceans

According to Sørum, it is vital that we succeed in the major industrial-scale recycling of these minerals. But before we reach that point, we first have to access the large volumes of minerals that can be fed ‘into the system’ from which they can later be recycled. This means that it will also be necessary to mine the minerals, such as those containing cobalt, manganese and nickel, among others, from the raw materials resources that still remain both on land and in the oceans.

“But these minerals will have to be extracted as sensitively and sustainably as possible”, says Sørum. “And we have to be sure that we will not be damaging key marine ecosystems in the process. We also have to weigh up the benefits and shortcomings of mineral extraction from the sea floor against those from mining onshore. We must look into the economics, climate- and environment-related issues, as well as other key factors such as geopolitics”, he says.

Sørum believes that seabed extraction will also contribute to wealth generation. It will create jobs and, not least, help fuel the transition taking place in the oil and gas sector. Currently, the majority of our minerals are sourced from China and countries in Africa. Europe lacks its own natural mineral resources. But we do have resources lying on the ocean floor not so very far away.

More sustainable than mining on land

And perhaps it is possible to combine sustainability with the transition taking place in the Norwegian oil and gas sector? One of the reasons for this is that minerals on the seabed often occur in high concentrations. This makes it possible to extract large volumes of raw materials from relatively small areas using limited resources. Seabed extraction will also eliminate the need to find space for spoil disposal because the spoil material can be transported back to the location from which it was first extracted.

“The quarries that we exploit today are already close to exhaustion, and as a result extend over wide areas. This is not necessarily good for the environment”, says Sørum.

Ida Eir Lauritzen is communication officer at SINTEF. The articleis published courtesy of NTNU: Norwegian University of Science and Technologyand SINTEF.