"Slowing" and "narrowing" the flow of metals for consumer goods: Evaluating opportunities and barriers

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Sustainability (Switzerland), 2018, 10 (4)
Issue Date:
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© 2018 by the authors. Metal resources are essential materials for many consumer products, including vehicles and a wide array of electrical and electronic goods. These metal resources often cause adverse social and environmental impacts from their extraction, supply and disposal, and it is therefore important to increase the sustainability of their production and use. A broad range of strategies and actions to improve the sustainability of resources are increasingly being discussed within the evolving concept of the circular economy. This paper uses this lens to evaluate the opportunities and barriers to improve the sustainability of metals in consumer products in Australia, with a focus on strategies that "slow" and "narrow" material flow loops. We have drawn on Allwood's characterisation of material efficiency strategies, as they have the potential to reduce the total demand for metals. These strategies target the distribution, sale, and use of products, which have received less research attention compared to the sustainability of mining, production, and recycling, yet it is vitally important for changing patterns of consumption in a circular economy. Specifically, we have considered the strategies of product longevity (life extension, intensity of use, repair, and resale), remanufacturing, component reuse, and using less material for the same product or service (digitisation, servicisation, and light-weighting). Within the Australian context, this paper identifies the strategies that have the greatest opportunity to increase material efficiency for metal-containing products (such as mobility, household appliances, and personal electronics), by evaluating current implementation of these strategies and identifying the material, economic, and social barriers to and opportunities for expanding these strategies. We find that many of these strategies have been successfully implemented for mobility, while applying these strategies to personal electronics remains the biggest challenge. Product longevity emerged as the strategy with the most significant opportunity for further implementation in Australia, as it is the most broadly applicable across product types and has significant potential for material efficiency benefits. The barriers to material efficiency strategies highlight the need for policies that broaden the focus beyond closing the loop to "slowing" and "narrowing" material loops.
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