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Leveraging circular economy for building mineral security

IRTC Board Member Akanksha Tyagi sheds light on the potential of the circular economy for India’s mineral security

Circular economy is yet to gain prominence in national strategies of securing clean energy mineral supply chains to fight climate change. India, too, has primarily focused on building manufacturing capabilities for clean energy technologies and lately on securing overseas mineral deposits, but the focus is gradually evolving to include concepts of resource efficiency and circular economy. India has announced several measures to develop domestic manufacturing capacity for automobiles and components (including batteries) and solar photovoltaic modules. It has also set up a dedicated organisation, Khanij Bidesh India Limited (KABIL), to identify strategic and critical minerals for India’s domestic manufacturing industries. KABIL is a joint venture of three central public sector enterprises: National Aluminium Company Ltd. (NALCO), Hindustan Copper Ltd. (HCL) and Mineral Exploration Company Ltd. (MECL). Last year, KABIL signed three Memoranda of Understanding with Argentinian government-run companies to explore sourcing lithium and other minerals. Recently, it has identified some lithium mines for extraction.

Of late, India has shifted its focus to leverage urban mining for meeting the upcoming mineral demand from its clean energy transition. In its G20 presidency, India has identified resource efficiency and circular economy as priority areas under the Environment and Climate Sustainability Working Group [1]. India’s official think tank, NITI Aayog, in coordination with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), the apex body for environment-related issues, has set up committees to create a circular economy for 11 key sectors including batteries, solar modules, and electronics. These committees have an action plan to build different sections of the circular economy ecosystem such as a regulatory framework, recycling technologies, and market mechanisms. The government is also supporting development of the recycling ecosystem in the country by running schemes to provide capital subsidy for recycling facilities for electronics, batteries, and solar modules. Several Indian states have also allocated land to developed integrated waste recycling zones for these sectors.

Recently, MoEFCC has also announced battery and electronic waste management rules. These new rules provide staggered targets for collection, reuse and recycling. They also include targets for reusing recovered minerals in the manufacturing of new products. Effective implementation of these rules will allow India to offset new mineral demand. With these rules, India became the third national jurisdiction, after EU and the UK, to have dedicated rules for managing battery and solar waste. While these efforts are encouraging, mitigating mineral supply challenges via circular economy requires more concrete efforts.

First, the industry should reduce the mineral intensity of their products and use minerals that are substitutable and recyclable. A Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) study estimates that currently available lithium-ion batteries require 2,300 to 4,600 tonnes of minerals to manufacture 1 GWh capacity [2]. Furthermore, many of these metals are intrinsic to battery performance, making their substitution difficult. Designing products with a lower material footprint and abundant materials can reduce the demand for critical raw materials.

Second, industry must design the products for disassembly or recyclability. Currently, products like solar modules use adhesives and encapsulants that make disassembly difficult, and often lead to contamination of other components in the product. Reducing or eliminating such materials will allow easier recovery of functional component from products and reduce the demand for new materials.

Third, policymakers must promote refurbishing and recycling technologies. An IEA study estimates that recycling and reusing batteries alone can reduce the cumulative primary mineral demand by 10 per cent in 2040 [3]. However, products such as solar modules lack efficient recycling technologies that can recover all intrinsic minerals of high purity. Policymakers must provide the financial support to encourage research, development and demonstration of these technologies to identify viable solutions.

Lastly, countries should come together to develop uniform indicators for circularity. These metrics can be used to evaluate and track technological innovations across the product development supply chain.

According to the International Energy Alliance (IEA), the global mineral demand could increase six times from 2020 levels for the world to achieve net-zero by 2050 [3].It would be catastrophic to meet this entire demand from primary sources. Countries should prioritise the development of a circular industry to extract the value from the waste pool accessible to them.


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