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Resource efficiency drives eco-innovation

12/12/2010

  • Experts interviews
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Marc Grynberg, chief executive officer of the materials technology company Umicore, talks about how resource efficiency policies are driving forward his global business.

With expertise in materials science, chemistry and metallurgy, Umicore turns precious metals into tomorrow’s products – from germanium substrates for high-efficiency solar cells to zinc oxides for sunscreens. It generates approximately 50% of its revenues and spends approximately 80% of its R&D budget in the area of clean technology.

Will the EU’s increasing focus on resource efficiency drive eco-innovation?

We expect resource efficiency to drive eco-innovation – and innovation will enable resource efficiency. In a way this is at the heart of our business model. We believe the increasing focus on resource efficiency will drive our business in two key ways:

  • We are developing products where we try to achieve a similar or better performance while using less of the raw material. We do it in new battery materials and automotive catalysts for example – areas where raw materials are typically pretty expensive; and
  • We expect resource efficiency to drive our recycling business, since it will probably mean a more proactive way of managing the life cycle of products.

How important is substituting one material for another compared with innovation in how we use the materials at our disposal?

I believe there is limited scope for substitution, especially when it comes to metals, where Umicore is active, because metals really have particular properties. If you need semiconducting properties, for instance, the spectrum of metals you can use is extremely limited. Also, very often substitution is actually moving the problem of scarcity from one material to another. You buy time but you do not really resolve the issue. There is greater potential in doing more with less and this is where we focus our innovation efforts.

How does resource efficiency in Europe compare with other parts of the world?

I think Europe is a leader in many respects. We have leading-edge legislation. Europe has been a pioneer with a number of initiatives at EU level, including the raw materials initiative and end-of-life vehicles Directive that go in the direction of resource efficiency.

The regulatory framework being ahead of that in other regions, we have also created a climate that is more conducive to technological innovation. If you take recycling as an example, recycling is one area where Europe has clear technological leadership compared with other regions because we have set tight, demanding standards. In many other regions, recycling is competing with landfilling and that is a battle you cannot win.

Many of the new technologies in renewables and other clean technologies were also initially developed in Europe. Now of course manufacturing may very often have moved to other regions but Europe is the leader in that respect.

What else can policymakers do to improve the climate for eco-innovation in Europe?

There are a number of things:

  • We have a very advanced regulatory and legislative framework, so probably do not need much more legislation. But we need to focus on enforcement.
  • Europe has shown itself to be slower than other regions in reaching decisions on programmes to support research and with whom. North America, China, South Korea and even Japan are moving at stellar speed compared with Europe. We need to work on a more limited number of policies, but much faster.
  • We need gradually to make sure consumers pay the true environmental costs of the products they consume. So we would create a level playing field between the primary product and recycled products for instance.

What are the main challenges you see ahead?

Scarcity of raw materials is one, because we only work with materials that are relatively scarce or that are abundant but not evenly distributed from a geographical point of view. Supply security is increasingly one of our challenges and is one of the reasons we focus so much on recycling at Umicore. We believe this is the best way to secure a significant proportion of our supply requirements and at sensible environmental conditions because it requires less energy and produces less CO2 to develop materials from secondary sources. The other challenge we have in our business is talent scarcity.

And the biggest opportunities?

There is one thing that has changed considerably in the last few years – awareness that we cannot continue to consume in the same manner as we have been for the past many decades. There are plenty of opportunities that will be driven by new consumer behaviour I believe, by willingness to pay a premium for products that are more environmentally friendly or produced differently. Legislation will drive our business, whether recycling or electrification of vehicles or reduction of harmful emissions, those plans are there and they are there to stay.

More information

Related information on the EcoAP Website