Assessing Mineral Resource Scarcity in a Circular Economy Context
Doctoral thesis, 2020

Due to humanity’s dependence on metal resources there are growing concerns regarding impacts related to their potential scarcity, both for current and future generations. The vision of a more circular economy suggests that extending the functional use of metals through measures aiming for resource-efficiency (RE) such as increasing technical lifetime, repairing and recycling could reduce mineral resource scarcity. However, evidence of this is limited. In addition, there is limited understanding regarding on what principles metals can be prioritized when assessing mineral resource scarcity.

The aim of this thesis is to provide knowledge on mineral resource scarcity impacts of RE measures applied to metal-diverse products and on which conditions they depend. This is achieved by: 1) studying RE measures from a life cycle perspective; 2) comparing principles of prioritization between metals on which mineral resource scarcity impacts are assessed and 3) analysing how such principles (of prioritization) can affect conclusions regarding RE measures applied to metal-diverse products. The research is conducted through case studies, syntheses of literature and method development within the methodologies of life cycle assessment, material flow analysis and criticality assessment.  

Results indicate that effects of RE measures depend on a number of product characteristics and real-world conditions. RE measures can both increase and decrease mineral resource scarcity impacts compared to business as usual and effects vary greatly between metals. RE measures based on use extension e.g. reuse of laptops, repair of smartphones, and increasing technical lifetimes of LED lighting, have been indicated to reduce impacts through two principal features: use extension, and, increased functional recycling. However, there are risks of increasing mineral resource scarcity impacts if RE measures require additional metal use, product use extensions are short and if functional recycling is lacking. For example, repair of smartphones risks to increase the use of metals in commonly replaced components such as screens.

Because of the varying effects on different metals, implementation of RE measures requires prioritizing some metals over others. The principles of prioritization give diverging results, and, are sometimes unclear and methodologically inconsistent. The thesis clarifies how they relate to concepts such as depletion, criticality, rarity and scarcity. Further it suggests that, although mineral resources are fundamentally stock resources, they can pose stock, fund and flow problems. Distinguishing between these different problems in distinct methodologies is conducive to purposive and complementary assessment by resolving methodological inconsistencies and providing accurate terminology. In the long term, scarcity is most purposively addressed by focusing on depletion of ecospheric stocks. Accordingly, the Crustal Scarcity Indicator is proposed to assess potential long term scarcity in life cycle assessment, alongside other environmental impacts. In the near term, potential scarcity for nations, industries and companies, as commonly assessed in criticality assessment, is most purposively addressed by focusing on technospheric circumstances, such as geopolitics, which can disrupt technospheric resource flows. In medium term, secondary resources in technospheric funds could be relevant, especially, with the advent of a more circular economy.

Altogether, it is recommended that implementation of RE measures to metal-diverse products are based on analysis of product characteristics and real-world conditions and that effects of RE measures are assessed by methodologies which distinguish between mineral resource flows, funds and stocks so that well-informed prioritizations between metals can be made.

supply risk

criticality assessment

scarce metals

electric and electronic equipment

circular economy

complex products

resource-efficiency

area of protection - natural resources

life cycle assessment

material flow analysis

Vasa B and Zoom live stream (password: 753264)
Opponent: Professor Jo Dewulf, Ghent University

Author

Hampus André

Chalmers, Technology Management and Economics, Environmental Systems Analysis

How product characteristics can guide measures for resource efficiency - A synthesis of assessment studies

Resources, Conservation and Recycling,; Vol. 154C(2020)

Journal article

A crustal scarcity indicator for long-term global elemental resource assessment in LCA

International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment,; Vol. 25(2020)p. 1805-1817

Journal article

André, H., & Ljunggren, M., 2020. Towards complementary assessment of mineral resource flows, funds and stocks within the Area of Protection - Natural Resources. manuscript submitted to a scientific journal.

André, H., & Ljunggren, M., 2020. Supply disruption and depletion impacts in a company context: the case of a permanent magnet electric traction motor. manuscript in preparation.

Humans today use most metals of the periodic table. Only a few, however, are recovered when products reach their end of life. This implies that many metals, to large extent, follow a linear pattern where they are extracted from the Earth’s crust, put into products and thereafter spread out to oftentimes unknown whereabouts. This raises concerns regarding mineral resource scarcity, both for current and future generations. The circular economy concept aims to rearrange this linear pattern to a more circular one by means of resource-efficiency (RE) measures such as reuse and repair.

This thesis studies whether, and under which conditions, such measures are successful in reducing potential mineral resource scarcity. Conditions which are found to be decisive are, for instance, component replacement rates, duration of use extension and whether metals can be recovered in recycling systems. Depending on these, RE measures can both increase and decrease mineral resource scarcity impacts compared to business as usual and effects vary greatly between metals.

Mineral resource scarcity, however, is a concept which is inherently both economic and environmental. Because of this, there have been persistent debates among economic and environmental scholars for decades on how to assess it. Different perspectives and methods result in a variety of prioritizations between metals. Many prioritizations are based on methods which are not purposively addressing what they intend to. As a result, it can be difficult to know which metals should be prioritized in order to reduce mineral resource scarcity through RE measures. For instance, is it worth it to repair a product if it decreases the use of one metal at the cost of increased use of another? The thesis suggests that, although mineral resources are fundamentally stock resources originating in the Earth’s crust, they can pose stock, fund and flow problems. Distinguishing between these different problems in distinct methods is conducive to more purposive methods and, thus, well-informed prioritizations between metals. To assess the environmental issue of potential scarcity in the long term for future generations, a method is proposed focusing on the problem of depletion of stocks of mineral resources in the Earth’s crust. In shorter time frames, scarcity is more dependent on economic issues which influence the availability of mineral resource flows and funds.

For successful implementation of RE measures, it is recommended to carefully consider decisive conditions of the specific situation and to use methods which are distinctly focusing on flow, fund and stock problems so that well-informed prioritizations between metals can be made.

Mistra REES – Resource-Efficient and Effective Solutions

The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research (Mistra), 2016-01-01 -- 2019-12-31.

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Areas of Advance

Production

Subject Categories

Other Natural Sciences not elsewhere specified

Environmental Management

Environmental Sciences

Geosciences, Multidisciplinary

ISBN

978-91-7905-376-5

Doktorsavhandlingar vid Chalmers tekniska högskola. Ny serie: 4843

Publisher

Chalmers University of Technology

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Online

Opponent: Professor Jo Dewulf, Ghent University

More information

Latest update

9/29/2020