Why Recycled Materials Don’t Always Generate Greener Products

This article describes a project undertaken by Japanese electronics giant Hitachi and three of its suppliers in conjunction with the E-Liability Institute to understand where CO2 emissions were produced in the value chain for the copper used to manufacture its transformers and how different sourcing of the copper would affect the quantity of emissions produced.  A key finding of the project was that recycled copper can produce significantly more CO2 emissions than mining copper, if the recycling process is itself high emitting and if the mining process is low-carbon.  This highlights the value of applying a systematic and robust approach to measuring carbon emissions such as the E-Liability method used in the project.

Companies are increasingly facing pressure from stakeholders, external and internal, to decarbonize their operations and mitigate their impact on climate change. But without a rigorous global system for carbon accounting, such pressure can feel more rhetorical than substantive, as companies are, at times, goaded to “go green,” become “net zero,” or embrace “the circular economy.” These terms have no well-established definitions, so they can become veils for stakeholders to drive ideological agendas unrelated to decarbonization or for companies themselves to engage in greenwashing.


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