The circularity paradox in the European steel industry
What happens when solutions to economic system challenges start to create their own problems?
Researching the European steel industry, Dr Julian Torres discovered that the more integrated supply chains are, the easier it is to track the lifecycle of steel alloys and the elements that go into them. Higher levels of integration make it easier to bring steel back via reverse logistics without losing too much value. The more you do this, the less iron ore you need to mine and melt, and the longer the reserves of high-grade iron ore – which needs less energy to transform into steel – will last. And integrating supply chains does not necessarily mean having the different steps all within the same company.
Recycling, remanufacturing and refurbishing are indisputably important tools for reducing our consumption of natural resources. These activities contribute to what scientists call circularity: making sure we use materials for as long as possible, over and over, so that we exploit nature less and less.
Doing so requires creating what are called “secondary markets”, where used materials are gathered up, reworked and injected back into the economy. While this is an essential part of creating circularity, there can sometimes be unintended and negative consequences. A striking example is the secondary metals market: it has been a success), creating new jobs and business opportunities), but the environmentally friendly goal that it once had is no longer a priority.
In Europe, we recycle more than 70% of used steel on average, and just over 30% of all recycled or remanufactured steel is produced in furnaces that use electricity rather than burning coal. Not bad, but no longer enough when considering the increasing steel demand from developing nations, which are growing rapidly.
Read Julian’s recent piece for The Conversation here explaining his findings, and what the steel industry can do to improve.
He has also created this entertaining video to help explain the circularity paradox – a.k.a. the “little monster” Scrappy! Check it out, and be sure to share it.
Dr Julian Torres is a recent graduate of the AdaptEcon II PhD programme. During the Programme’s final retreat in Iceland in August he participated in workshops with the WEAll Amp team. Julian received funding from the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme via a Marie Curie Fellowship on Excellent Research (grant agreement
675153). Julian is a member of the International Society for Industrial Ecology and a Board Member of the Jean Monnet Excellence Center on Sustainable Development.