Less is more: Resource efficiency through waste collection, recycling and reuse of aluminium, cotton and lithium in Europe

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This report explores three different commodities – lithium, aluminium and cotton – to exemplify how our linear consumption patterns (extraction, manufacture, use and disposal) not only have major social, economic and environmental impacts, but also represent a missed opportunity for job creation and global resource security.
Aluminium can be recycled continuously without losing its valuable qualities. Legally-binding targets for high collection rates for the whole of the EU could be met through appropriate investment in recycling infrastructure that enables almost zero waste and widespread recycling to reduce consumption levels.
Lithium is used in batteries for electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops, electric vehicles and energy storage devices and, unlike aluminium, it has extremely low collection rates across Europe. Legal standards and state support could enforce much higher collection rates and ensure the design and manufacture of electronic goods that are not built to require endless upgrades and replacement and do not contain multiple hazardous materials.
Cotton is a widely used textile that has major cradle-to-grave impacts, including the depletion of local water supplies. Moreover, many high-street brands have seen their images tainted by their reliance on cotton garments produced using sweatshop labour. Recycling, reuse and, most importantly, reduced consumption can radically reduce the amount of cotton ending up in European landfill sites or being incinerated.
As the largest net importer of natural resources per capita, Europe requires integrated solutions to reduce consumption. Sustainable resource efficiency measures are necessary to ensure that European countries avoid being trapped using technologies, processes and structures that increase dependency on raw materials, including metals extracted through destructive mining practices, crops requiring high pesticide inputs, and land and water grabbing.
The EU has recently expressed a political commitment to measure the land, materials, water and carbon used across the supply chain to meet our current consumption levels. However, little has been done at the political level to ensure this policy will be introduced and implemented across the EU. In order to challenge this inaction, the environmental movement – including marginalised communities, consumers, workers, designers and youth – has to intensify its actions from the grassroots upwards, to demand systemic change to slow the exhaustion of the planet’s natural resources upon which we all depend.

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