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Resource efficiency: the situation is becoming greener

A quiet revolution is coming up to speed: the constant growth of resource efficiency. German industry makes a decisive contribution to a sustainable and closed-loop use of raw materials with innovative technologies and products.

Aluminium, chromium, high-value plastics and a 120-litre petrol tank – the obsolete sports car undoubtedly dates back to an age when mineral oil was referred to with wonder as “black gold” and used wastefully for the production and operation of vehicles. Without any chance of passing the next major technical test, the rusty coupé now stands outside the recycling plant so that hi-tech aggregates can once more be separated out into pure fractions of copper, steel and other metals and raw materials. In the past it is more likely that the complete car would have been fed into the shredder instead of being accurately dismantled into usable components and once more inserted in production loops. That is no longer acceptable today.

We have not suddenly realised that the earth’s natural treasures are not infinite. Energy sources such as oil, natural gas and coal or all materials such as metals, ores and rare earths through to chemicals, water and land and soil on areas of cultivation or buildings and factories are created – our entire lives and economy are based on the use of natural raw materials. Resources are finite, at the same time demand continues to grow worldwide. Hence, we must increasingly think in loops, not least to protect environment and climate.

In other words, using raw materials efficiently means first and foremost using them more sustainably in order to reach the same or better results using fewer resources. This also includes replacing non-renewable with renewable raw materials, designing products to last longer and to increase their recyclability.

The Federal Environmental Office describes resource efficiency as “thinking in substance flows on a lifecycle perspective which takes into account the entire global value creation chain starting with raw material extraction”. This strategy pursues the concept of ecological efficiency which entered public consciousness at the latest at the time of the environment summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Resource efficiency through optimised production processes

Since our resources are scare, expensive and valuable, increasing resource efficiency has for years been an important theme in the raw materials sector as well as in all other industrial sectors and is assigned a high value in policy-making. This applies for the international level as much as for the European and national levels. The priority goal is to use nature responsibly, to conserve resources and to reduce the environmental burdens caused by our diverse economic activities to a minimum. Examples from industry show that environmentally responsible product design and performance do not constitute a contradiction. A carefully considered resource efficiency strategy can often achieve the same or even a better result with considerable material savings – and not only since yesterday. For instance, as recently as the mid-1960s, 185 kilogrammes of unused raw materials were generated in the form of manufacturing waste for the production of 1,000 kilogrammes of the mass plastic polypropylene. By the end of the 1980s leaner production processes had reduced this share to 23 kilogrammes and now to just five kilogrammes – thus efficiency increased from 81.5 to 99.5 %.

It is true that the production of polypropylene still uses mineral oil, but used plastic packaging made of polypropylene is fed back into the recovery circuit via waste separation and recycling.

Ambitious goals for the raw materials strategy of the future

In the framework of its 2002 sustainability strategy for Germany, the Federal Government formulated the objective of doubling energy and raw materials productivity by 2020 with 1994 as the base year. The 2012 German resource efficiency programme “ProgRess” sets out concrete action proposals as to how this can be achieved. The focus here is above all on small and medium-sized enterprises which can use the numerous advisory offers to improve their resource efficiency, in particular in the use of mineral and carbon-containing raw materials.

The progress report on the German resource efficiency programme (ProgRess II) was adopted by the Federal Cabinet in February 2016. In addition, the provisional draft by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Construction and Nuclear Safety (BMUB) proposes in the action recommendations in ProgRess concrete objectives for reducing resource demand in Germany as well listing methodological elements and principles for evaluating the resource efficiency of products and processes.

A further roadmap can be found in “A resource-efficient Europe – Flagship initiative of the Europe 2020 strategy” which was published by the European Commission in 2011. This develops the concept of resources further and also explicitly includes the areas of energy, soil, water and air. The sector also expects concrete policy measures for improving resource efficiency in the framework of a projected legislative package on the circular economy which the European Commission has announced for the end of 2015.

German industry presses for voluntary measures also in ProgRess II

German industry supports the policy objective of promoting the sustainable use of natural resources while minimising harmful environmental and climate impacts, and has already been making a decisive contribution to increasingly efficient use of natural resources for many decades with innovative technologies and products. But in BDI’s view, political requirements to increase resource efficiency as well as concrete requirements for reducing the use of particular resources are not the right way, not least because there are not yet any suitable indicators for measurements. Purely quantitative indicators such as the “Raw Material Consumption” (RMC) under discussion at European level would disadvantage industrial countries such as Germany leading to the loss of industrial undertakings and jobs in order to achieve an increase in the indicator.

Furthermore, with an excess of state regulation, there is the danger that the potential for economic growth in Germany will be limited artificially. Given the economic situation in the EU and against the backdrop of the current refugee issue, this would be a completely wrong signal at the present time.