How can a Circular Economy Lessen the Demand on the Mining of Critical Raw Materials?

A staggering 54 million tonnes of e-waste is produced globally every year. Within this discarded mass lies a treasure trove of valuable materials that are not only worth a substantial fortune but could also be recycled for use in a circular IT economy, as well as for renewable energy purposes. Currently, it is estimated that 7% of the world’s gold supplies are located in e-waste and this is just one of the many core materials being needlessly wasted year on year.  

The mining of materials is under intense scrutiny as resources and supplies are diminishing on a global scale. It is often argued that the creation of a circular economy is the answer to the growing concern for critical raw materials (CRMs) depletion. As a provider of sustainable IT solutions and a vocal advocate for the formation of a circular IT economy, this is an issue that aligns with our values at Techbuyer and, as such, one on which we have strong opinions. 

According to Professor Hao Tan of the University of Newcastle, the mining of CRMs is a necessary evil for the continued development of many industries globally, including the renewable energy sector. The global situation today means mining is essential for the rapid development of renewable energy sources, including wind farms, solar panels and tidal turbines. Currently, according to Professor Hao Tan, a circular economy cannot be relied upon to meet the demand for materials for a sustainable energy model. He argues that this is due to materials that are mined becoming tied up in long-term projects where they will not be seen for upwards of 50 years, e.g., architecture.  

However, the lifespan of a product, be it a car, building or technology device, is not the main concern here, it is what we do with that product once it reaches the end of its life that is of importance. Even in our day-to-day lives, we see enough waste; buildings are torn down daily, cars are scrapped and goods are chucked away. We have so much “stuff” in our economy nowadays, both being created and disposed of, that the potential scale for a circular economy could support exponential growth of many industries, including renewable energy sources.  

Knowing what to do with Waste

The circular economy, as it currently stands, has significant gaps, making it difficult for this model to support exponential growth in many industries. For a circular economy to flourish, we must adapt our thinking to a circular mindset and develop innovative and realistic ways in which to use the materials found in waste.  

Recycling is not currently effective enough to remove all of the valuable materials within many manufactured goods, especially where technology is concerned. Furthermore, recycled materials are not yet as available for manufacturing companies as virgin metals, minerals and chemicals. Recycling and availability are two major aspects of a sustainable economy and they must be expanded and optimised to support the development of renewable energy in the most sustainable way possible.  

Recycling could one day be an important tool for not only removing materials for technology that has been recycled, but also for removing materials from the piles of e-waste that can currently be found in landfill. However, recycling will always be an energy intensive process and improving habits around extending the lifespan of IT through refurbishment and repair will be needed for a truly sustainable IT sector.  

Systems for responsible waste management are being continuously developed, however, we still have some way to go before these systems are commonplace or even perform well enough to extract each material from a product for reuse. This is where the importance for product lifespan extension and refurbishment becomes even more prevalent.  

Why can the IT Industry have a Drastic Impact?  

The development of a circular IT economy is currently underway and sustainable technology practices are being adopted by some of the largest companies in the world, including Microsoft and Google. But why is this important for the mining of materials for use in renewable energy?  

The Information Technology industry is currently the sixth-largest in the world with a net worth of $5.2 trillion. With the sheer scale and reach of the technology sector in mind, the creation and implementation of more sustainable habits in this area is essential for a more eco-friendly future.  

In 2021 alone around 1.39 billion mobile phones were manufactured, each demanding the use of a range of CRMs, including lithium and cobalt. In addition, in 2019, 261 million new computers were shipped, again, all requiring CRM for production. Therefore, it is clear to see the sheer demand that technology puts on the mining of CRMs on a yearly basis. A circular economy is key to reducing this demand and freeing up essential materials for the creation of sustainable energy equipment.  

Techbuyer’s Sustainable IT Solutions 

Techbuyer is a global specialist in sustainable IT solutions designed to support the establishment and advancement of a circular IT economy. We offer a range of services to allow you or your business to create responsible habits for your IT and reduce the impact of your technology on the environment. Find out more about our IT life cycle services here or get in touch with our experienced team for a personalised solution designed around your unique needs.

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