Citizens, businesses, and governments are increasingly aware of the need to use energy more efficiently and sustainably in the future. The transition from a linear to a circular economy is thus seen as both necessary and desirable (Kroes, 2018).
The role of recycling is crucial to achieve a resource efficient society, and a circular economy in general (Worrel & Reuter, 2014). Nevertheless, the sustainability of recycling itself is rarely questioned. What if recycling was part of the unsustainability of our global economy? This possibility is confirmed in this case study focusing on the Dutch market for recycled metal scrap.
Scrap consists of recyclable materials left over from the manufacturing and consumption of goods (Meena et al., 2018). In the Netherlands, eighty percent of the generated metal scrap is recycled (Tam & Tam, 2006). However, most of the Dutch smelters in charge of scrap recycling have gone bankrupt in the last decades, as a result of competing prices and weaker environmental regulations in other parts of the world (Wester, 2020A).
Scrap recycling was therefore delocalized, and Dutch traders now send large quantities of scrap metals to countries outside of Europe. Since Asia became the manufacturing factory of the world, there are more goods coming in Europe than going back to Asia (Wester, 2020B). To prevent container ships from returning empty, shipping costs to Asia are very low. On top of that, environmental pollution from international shipping is hardly taxed. This makes scrap transportation to other European countries inconvenient and uncompetitive (Wester, 2020A).
Remarkably, when scrap metal is exported rather than melted in the country of origin, the environmental impact remains zero on paper. The shipping industry does not need to record carbon dioxide emissions, so Dutch CO2 emissions from scrap metal are only counted when it is melted in the Netherlands. When scrap is exported, emissions simply vanish from the records and from any environmental impact evaluation (Wester, 2020).
Shipping scrap to other parts of the world means that high seas are entered. High seas are open-access resources, i.e. they are not subject to the legal sovereignty of any state. Thus, there is no entity guaranteeing its intergenerational survival or protection from depletion or pollution. (Debaere, 2020).
Furthermore, shipping was not even mentioned in the 2015 Paris Agreement global targets for carbon emission reduction, or anywhere else in the agreement (UNFCCC, 2015). Still, marine vessels account for approximately 5% of the global CO2 emissions, 7% of the sulphur dioxide emissions, and 23% of the nitrogen oxides emissions (Kesieme et al., 2019). The last two emissions are linked to acid rain, which causes considerable pollution of land ecosystems (Graßl, 2002).
Fig. 1: The HMM Algeciras – the biggest marine vessel worldwide – in Antwerp, Belgium. Photo source: Author, October 2020.
So where exactly does all the scrap metal go?
After China’s ban on scrap metal import, Turkey has quickly become the biggest importer with a share of 30 to 40% of the global scrap. Of all the scrap that is shipped from the Netherlands, approximately 80% is melted down in Turkey. Cheap labour and energy costs, on top of loose and often not enforced environmental standards, makes Turkey highly competitive in the global scrap metal recycling market. That is why Turkish smelters can afford buying scrap metal at prices up to double the prices offered by Dutch traders. Thus, a total of approximately 60,000 Dutch lorries full of scrap metals found their way to Turkey last year (Wester, 2020A).
One can question whether the recycling of scrap metals, as it is done now, is sustainable at all. This has consequences for the purchaser of these metals, especially for the end consumer An example comes from the Dutch Sluishuis, a futuristic designed apartment building in Amsterdam, which promotes itself as “ultra-sustainable”. Among various reasons, Sluishuis claims to be “ultra-sustainable” due to its “maximum use” of recycled and renewable construction materials. They advertised the new flats under the motto “circular building” (Sluishuis, 2020). Although Sluishuis has right intentions, it purchases steel for beams and pillars from one of the dirty factories in Turkey. This shows how difficult it is to build “sustainably”, even when your intentions are right (Wester, 2020A).
Wester (2020A) shows that even if metal traders were to melt more sustainably in the Netherlands, the scrap recycling capacity would not be sufficient since the manufacturing industry was largely delocalized. Clearly, at this moment it is not possible to build a clean smelter in the Netherlands. So, today “the more scrap we process abroad, the better the CO2 footprint of the Netherlands [looks like], while [instead] it leads to more emissions worldwide”. On paper the Netherlands is a recycling world champion, but in truth it has exported the scrap metal, climate, and waste problem somewhere else (Wester, 2020A).
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