Google is a proponent of “urban mining,” the process of extracting critical minerals such as lithium, cobalt, and copper from obsolete cell phones, laptops, and other devices and reintroducing them into materials supply chains.
But that won’t be enough to expose all the minerals and metals to create new Google hardware that’s sustainably sourced or meet the needs of the clean energy systems behind the company’s net-zero goals, said Mike Werner, chief executive officer. circular economy for Google. “We’ve done some modeling and it’s pretty clear that we’re not going to hit net zero without significant mining,” Werner told an audience at the Circularity 23 conference last week. “I don’t know if the broader sustainability community has really understood that.”
While Google is already “mining” materials from old electronics and appliances, Werner acknowledged that it will need to support new extraction activities to meet product demand and reach its net-zero goals. That poses a dilemma for sustainability professionals, as the mining industry is often criticized for questionable environmental and human rights practices.
Werner also said moving “trillions and trillions of tons” of dirt will require reclaiming enough critical minerals, including rare earth elements such as dysprosium and magnesium, to build technologies critical to the clean energy transition, including solar panels, wind turbines and batteries. for electric vehicles and energy storage. That demand, based on a 2021 analysis by the International Energy Agency, is about six to nine times what it would take to build a comparable fossil fuel infrastructure, he said.
Urban mining will become an essential part of materials supply chains, Werner said. After all, it is the fastest growing waste stream in the world (yes, faster than plastic) with an annual production of more than 50 million tons. In other words, that’s like throwing away 1000 laptops per second.
Google’s own programs are a work in progress, but it supports the collection of unwanted electronics in many American households, including televisions. It advocates reintroducing some of the materials taken from those gadgets into its new hardware — as of April, about 30 percent of all materials used to make its phones, thermostats, tablet computers, televisions and other devices came from recycled resources. (That includes nonmetals like glass and plastic.)
Get ready for a new kind of footprint exercise
But Google doesn’t rely solely on that activity. To get a sense of how the looming mineral shortage could affect Google in the long run, the company documents and calculates how many critical minerals the company’s product revenue goals and net zero liabilities require. This benchmarking exercise co-exists with other footprint activities, such as measuring greenhouse gas emissions or water consumption.
That means not only studying the direct material implications for the hardware devices Google sells to consumers and the computing servers and networking equipment in its data center, but also assessing the potential impact it has on meeting the company’s commitment to go 100 percent carbon-free. energy in 2030.
“I would really urge anyone who has a net-zero commitment to do the same,” Werner said.
He suggested engaging corporate procurement teams and CFOs to understand how shortages will affect prices. Among the questions companies should consider:
- Which e-waste streams could potentially provide the materials your business most relies on?
- Are the regions from which these materials come subject to geopolitical conflict?
- What are the human rights implications and the impact on indigenous communities?
- What are the land use, conservation and restoration practices of the mining organizations that provide new supplies?
- How do your company’s procurement processes affect freshwater ecosystems?
The answers to these questions will help shape long-term sourcing strategies, Werner said, reiterating that while urban mining “will play an important role in the market, it is insufficient to meet net-zero demands.”
That means sustainability professionals need to feel more comfortable working with mining companies, and advocate for policies that accelerate permitting for operations that prioritize ethical and sustainable ways of mining. One resource that could help guide these strategies is the International Council on Mining and Metals, which represents companies including Alcoa, Anglo American and Rio Tinto that have agreed to a set of 39 practices designed to mitigate the impact of minimize mining on society; and the Responsible Minerals Initiative, which represents 400 companies that have agreed to support responsible mineral production and sourcing.
“We need to find better ways to get these minerals out of the ground and put them into the economy,” Werner said.
Consider just one of those metals: copper, which is vital for wiring, cables and other electrical infrastructure.
It takes an average of 17 years to develop a new copper mine, Werner said, suggesting that humanity is already way behind making the investments needed to ramp up new production. Consider that about 700 million tons of copper have been mined in the last 4,000 years. Nearly double that amount, or 1.2 billion tons, will be needed to meet the demands of the clean energy transition, Werner said.
“I don’t really think our community within circularity and sustainability really understands the seriousness of the situation, and it will mean that powering clean energy and driving aspects of mining infrastructure is really, really important,” he said.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated June 15 to clarify the reference to “trillions and trillions” of tons, and to correct a typo in the copper mining discussion.