Companies that make sensible use of energy and material and try to identify and exploit potential savings to the full are operating sustainably for the good of the environment and their own bottom line. Recycling to produce new raw materials is proving to be an additional solution that is both smart and lucrative. The following article demonstrates how important energy and resource efficiency is.
“O dear, o dear, o deary, when the end comes sad and dreary”: we are consuming increasingly large amounts of the natural resources available to us and the more complex and more complicated our products become, the more resources are needed to make them. About 70 billion tonnes of raw materials are obtained worldwide every year – twice as much as at the end of the 1970s. And it is clear that the volume is continuing to increase, in spite of the fact that resources are finite. One way – which may in fact be the way – to have enough materials available for new products in future as well is systematic recycling.
The earth will be populated by an estimated 9 billion people in 2050. Steps need to be taken to make sure they are provided for.
Consumption and shortage – two sides of the same coin
Experts are convinced: if we extrapolate the current consumption of natural resources to the year 2050, when the world’s population is expected to be more than nine billion, our earth will no longer be in a position to satisfy the ever-increasing hunger for raw materials around the world. There will be a shortage of raw and finished materials – the key to innovative technological and economic development. Even if global warming causes the Arctic ice cap to melt and expose rich new sources of raw materials.
No matter what are involved – cars, flat screens, smart phones, computers or solar and photovoltaic systems: the more complex and complicated a product is, the more resources are needed to manufacture it. Whereas just 12 elements from the periodic table were required to make a telephone in 1980, this figure had already increased to 16 by 1990. In the meantime, modern telecommunications devices alone contain about 60 different metals and metalloids – practically all the possible elements in the periodic table.
Leading scientists are certain that we will be facing bottlenecks in the electronics field in the foreseeable future. They will not be arriving all of a sudden without prior announcement; they will instead be developing gradually – closely monitored by those of us whose constant aim is to substitute resources rather than saving them. The question that has to be answered is how long this will remain possible:
In the meantime, modern telecommunications devices alone contain about 60 different metals and metalloids – practically all the possible elements in the periodic table.
There is no balance in the raw material reserves available around the world. There is more of one element, while there is less of others. We already know today that the first rare earths will be running out in a few years’ time, as Professor Gerhard Sextl has prophesied. The Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC in Würzburg / Germany points out that it would be advisable and probably essential in view of this to think urgently about solutions for how raw materials can be recovered that are in short supply and cannot be found any more in concentrated underground deposits but have instead been used already and can now be found spread around landfill sites or the environment (e.g. attached to plastic residue in the sea). Should this ever be done, what is likely to be a priority is “marine litter” – an issue that is becoming an increasingly pressing issue in public environmental debate – and its role as the raw material source of the future. The notion that all raw materials will have been consumed is, however, at least a productive basis for exciting fiction. Back to the real world.
According to Professor Sextl, there is enough indium (which is needed, among other things, for the production of flat screens and touch screens) for about ten years and enough silver for about 20 years. The natural reserves of lead will be exhausted in approximately 25 years, while we probably have sufficient uranium for roughly another 30 years. We can only hope that mankind has found an efficient and viable alternative to nuclear power by then at the latest. Time is running short ...
One crisis after another
Where natural resources are concerned, we are aware that we will have to tackle hitherto unfamiliar challenges. Every single one of them represents an adventure with an outcome we can only speculate about. Let us take another look at the situation with metals in this context: Professor Gerhard Sextl says that we will be facing a shortage of the elements zinc or tin – a metal that is used for an incredibly wide range of different applications – copper, nickel, chromium, platinum – all of them major components of key existing and innovative new technologies – in the foreseeable future. The situation is so serious that pessimists advise us to think about how modern-day homo technicus will cope with a return to a world without mobile phones and Internet-to-go. Quite apart from the problem of how we intend to feed the world’s population as it continues to grow.
In the foreseeable future, there will be a shortage of phosphorus, an essential ingredient of fertilisers, which are required in order to produce sufficient quantities of food to feed the world’s population as it continues to grow steadily.
Like so many other things, the reserves of natural phosphate are running low. Phosphate is, however, an essential ingredient of fertilisers, which are needed to be able to produce sufficient amounts of food. The following fact makes it clear just how urgent it is to find a solution to the problem of dwindling natural reserves of phosphorus – something that may only threaten to hit us with full force in 100 years’ time or later: the European Union is funding a project co-ordinated by the Julius Kuhn Institute about the production of recycled fertiliser from urban and agricultural resources, in other words from recycled phosphorus . An initial response, a step in the right direction. Burying our heads in the sand cannot be the solution. Innovations are more important than ever before, because the list of potential crises of global proportions is long. When resources dwindle and shortages occur, international conflicts are inevitable – and not just where drinking water is concerned.
At the moment, China is the only country that has all the elements at its disposal that are currently needed – due in part to the purposeful acquisition of land. The “Middle Kingdom” is the source of 90 per cent of the 110,000 tonnes of rare earths that are mined every year. China is therefore in a position to influence world market prices heavily by restricting exports, as long as substitution by other raw materials is difficult. Although nations like the USA or Canada are trying to weaken China’s monopoly on the availability of rare earths , this will not change the fact that serious thinking should be done about sustainable solutions with which national borders can be overcome.
Save and reuse: recycling is the solution
Professor Gerhard Sextl points out that “we are already exploiting the natural raw material reserves as though we had two planets are our disposal”. The expert for non-metallic materials predicts that we are heading for a comprehensive resource crisis involving practically all the raw materials that are essential for a modern economy – including crude oil and natural gas, as we are all aware – if keep going the way we are at present.
Natural gas and crude oil are not the only resources that will be running out in the foreseeable future.
Complex challenges demand a variety of different approaches
Dr Klaus Wittstock from BASF in Ludwigshafen / Germany reveals that “about 59 per cent of fossil raw materials are burned as car and lorry fuel today, while 36 per cent are used to generate electricity and heat, about 5 per cent are consumed by the chemical industry and 1 to 2 per cent go into the production of plastics”. He adds that the raw material and energy required to manufacture basic chemical products generally account for some 80 to 90 per cent of the costs of the chemical industry, while the rest is attributable to personnel and equipment costs. The expert for resource efficiency and recycling with a doctorate in process engineering emphasises that his company therefore has no alternative to optimisation – i.e. energy and resource minimisation – in order to remain competitive.
Productivity in the chemical industry has improved drastically as well: in the case of polypropylene synthesis, for example, the yield used to be 84 per cent; now it is about 99.7 per cent. Klaus Wittstock is convinced that “no more progress can be made here with resource efficiency measures either”. At the BASF location in Ludwigshafen, for example, ways have also been found to exploit synergy benefits, e.g. by linking different production operations. What is meant here is that heat and waste products from one operation are used as secondary raw materials in other operations and thus help to reduce the consumption of primary raw materials. So much for large industrial companies.
SMEs and the potential they have
Dr Christof Oberender from the VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency in Berlin / Germany says that there is plenty of potential to save resources and use them more efficiently at small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) too. While it is in his opinion comparatively easy to save energy, the expert whose doctorate is in mechanical engineering is convinced that SMEs frequently find it difficult “to identify and implement potential efficiency improvements in their use of materials”. He thinks that this is due to the fact that most manufacturing processes are very specific, so that existing solutions cannot simply be copied. Changes could in addition have an impact on product quality, which has consequences for the company concerned. Christof Oberender emphasises that the VDI Centre for Resource Efficiency can give companies that are interested systematic support in this area.
A survey concludes that € 90 billion of raw material imports could be eliminated if recoverable waste was recycled 100 per cent.
A look at the end of the value chain
Efficient use of resources also means – not least of all – planning what will happen to a product at the end of the value chain – ideally right from the start in line with the motto “design for recycling”. Christof Oberender stresses that it would have extensive, positive impact on product recyclability if companies were obliged to take back their own products on a large scale. The expert from the VDI Centre for Research Efficiency thinks that it would also be sensible for manufacturers to agree with recycling companies about the recyclability of polymer products with a short life, such as packaging materials.
Dr Andreas Bruckschen, Director of the German Association of Waste Disposal, Water and Raw Material Management (BDE) in Berlin / Germany, thinks that German recycling companies in particular have become world champions “over the past 20 years and with total investments of € 30 billion”. Figures from a survey of the economic significance of the waste disposal and raw material industries commissioned by the BDE from the Cologne Institute for Economic Research have shown what is possible in future. On the basis of this survey, the BDE expects that the primarily privately-owned German recycling companies will be supplying the German market with secondary raw materials worth € 20 billion in 2015. In 2010, raw materials worth € 138 billion were processed in the country. According to the survey, 100 per cent recycling of recoverable waste would lead to the elimination of raw material imports worth € 90 billion. Another conclusion was that there is substantial potential in co-operation between industry and domestic recycling companies.
The mountain of plastic is growing. Development of plastic waste – volume and recycling in Europe. Up to about 2006, the total volume of plastic packaging sold in the “old” member states (EU 15) increased to about 13 million tonnes and it has not changed to any major extent since then. The amount that is not recycled, i.e. is disposed of on landfill sites or is incinerated without energy recovery, decreased from 6.6 million tonnes in 1998 to 4.3 million tonnes in 2011, which still represented about 33 per cent of the plastic packaging that was brought onto the market. The volume of plastic recycled in material form increased from 1.8 million tonnes in 1998 to 4.5 million tonnes in 2011, while other forms of recycling (primarily energy recovery, i.e. the obtainment of electricity and heat from waste) increased from 1.5 million tonnes to 4.3 million tonnes. In 2011, 1.1 million tonnes of waste were still disposed of unused in the member states that joined the EU after 2004. This corresponds to more than 59 per cent of the plastic packaging sold. Source: Öko-Institut e.V.
More effective recycling of plastic waste
Klaus Wittstock thinks, however, that there is less to be worried about with respect to Germany, drawing attention to past experience at the International Energy Agency (IEA). In a “best practice” approach, the aim should be to recycle 25 per cent of plastic waste in material form in other countries too, with 75 per cent recycled to generate energy: around the world, plastic waste is still being disposed of to a large extent on landfill sites. Klaus Wittstock is convinced that “the markets for high-tech recyclates and applications for them are limited”. He calls for a quality campaign by the recycling industry, in order to open up these markets. He feels that it also would be a major step in the right direction if the disposal of plastics on landfill sites was banned all over the world and if plastic waste was at least recycled to generate energy. It was up to the political community to specify the general conditions for this.
Recycling of plastic packaging waste still lower than 50 per cent in 2011. Development of plastic waste – volume and recycling in Germany. The volume of plastic packaging brought onto the market in Germany increased by 85 per cent between 1997 and 2011 (from 1.5 million tonnes to 2.8 million tonnes). Clearer distinctions between recycling and other forms of recovery were introduced in 2003, so that reporting methodology changed. If 2003 is taken as the base year, recycling (i.e. the proportion of packaging waste recycled) decreased from 53 per cent in 2003 to a minimum of 39 per cent in 2005, after which it increased back to a maximum of 49 per cent in 2010. This means that less than 50 per cent of plastic was still being recycled in Germany in 2011 too.
Dipl.-Ing. Guido Deußing
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