The eco-efficiency of virgin resources


publication date 17/05/2017

The earth has a limited amount of virgin non-renewable resources, and this includes materials such as gold. Virgin resources are used in various types of electronic equipment, ranging from life-support machines to telescopes in outer space. Take gold for example; the fact that it conducts electricity, does not corrode, is easily workable (even on a tiny scale) and is durable means that gold is widely used in electronic equipment. The valuable properties of such a material present society with a problem. There is a high level of demand for gold but there is a limited supply of it, so when products containing it are discarded its potential value risks being lost for good

The good news is that levels of virgin, non-renewable resources used in products can be reduced through eco-efficiency. This is when companies use less input (for example virgin gold) to create more output (for example mobile phones). Managers at the micro-level of the firm can decide on the mix of virgin and used resources that go into products and by doing so, improve the eco-efficiency of the firm. However, a manager has no way of connecting such micro-level eco-efficiency decisions with reduced consumption of earth’s store of virgin resources at the macro-level. In this study, this connection is made for individual decision makers. 

The research presents a way to measure the eco-efficiency of earth’s store of virgin resources used by micro-level actors, and helps to identify the eco-efficiency drivers of that usage. The authors apply the measure to the example of gold in smartphones. The illustration shows that while there is little potential to increase eco-efficiency through technical methods (such as recycling processes), behavioural and collaborative endeavours (such as encouraging mobile phone recycling) could dramatically improve eco-efficiency. 

The results are interesting because they suggest that the ways that are currently used to increase eco-efficiency should be reconsidered – rather than concentrating on technical aspects, more effort needs to be directed at behavioural and collaborative solutions. The methods currently used to recycle gold from mobile phone waste are incredibly efficient, but the levels of gold recuperated from used mobile phones remains low. Despite waste legislation and financial as well as environmental incentives for mobile phone users, collection rates have barely increased in the past 15 years, and remain low. The interest lies in the fact that behavioural and collaborative solutions require management coordination and the engagement of actors other than manufacturers or retailers.  

Service and product providers should re-consider the importance of their role in increasing the eco-efficiency of virgin resources.


Learn more

Figge, F., Givry, P., Canning, L., Franklin-Johnson, E. & Thorpe, A. (2017) Eco-efficiency of Virgin Resources: A Measure at the Interface between Micro and Macro Levels. Ecological Economics, Vol. 138, 12-21.