Brought to you by Jair Santillan Saldivar, Audrey Philippe, and Daniel Monfort from BRGM

The access to Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) has been a subject of focus for the European Union for more than a decade. Decision-making processes regarding CRMs are focused on securing their availability and accessibility for key sectors in the EU such as energy, transport, defence, among others. In 2011, the first list of CRMs was published as part of the priority actions for securing raw materials; this list has been updated every three years ever since to reflect changes in the market and technology 2023 has also brought the much anticipated Critical Raw Materials Act into life which will secure diversified, affordable and sustainable supply of critical raw materials.

Multiple indicators are used for the estimation of criticality for multiple raw materials; most notably in the European context, the study of supply risk and economic importance form the two-dimensional criticality indicator used to determine CRMs for the EU criticality lists. These indicators have the objective to inform decision-making processes associated with ensuring a continuous flow of resources to the Technosphere (availability and accessibility). This perspective follows the notion of a linear economy, in which the main concern is to guarantee steady sourcing, production and consumption. In contrast, the paradigm of the circular economy proposes a model in which the value of resources is kept in the Technosphere, minimising losses and waste along the supply chain of products and services.

In the context of the circular economy, resource dissipation has been identified as a barrier to the objective of retaining value in the economy. Resource dissipation is defined as a phenomenon for which resources are no longer accessible due to economic and/or technological constraints and it can occur along the whole life cycle of products and services. Some examples of potential dissipation of CRMs are the presence of strategic metals in tailings, old and new scrap in landfills or that have not followed a collection and treatment circuit, metal uses which are unrecovered such as titanium paints among others. Dissipation represents a loss or degradation of the value of resources in the Technosphere and the potential to make use of the value that a resource holds for humans.

The FutuRaM project aims to estimate the potential supply of CRM in Europe from recycling, based on the current situation of recycling and integrating future scenarios with reasonable recycling and circular economy strategies, anticipated longer lifetime and more reuse and repair. It is worth noting that recycling does not recover the every metal present in waste and dissipation occurs in all the stages.

FutuRaM’s waste streams are also affected by resource dissipation. For example; municipal solid waste incineration, which burns some metallic wastes that are not well sorted, generates ashes that contain dissipated metals if they are not recovered later. WEEE contains many CRM metals but currently only a minor part is recycled due to too low content and recycling technology limitations. These metals are lost in recycling process slags. Mining processes are not fully efficient either as mining wastes contain metals, some of which were not previously exploited, because they were not useful at the time.

Efforts in the FutuRaM project have the potential to contribute to the mitigation of resource dissipation thanks to the implementation of the so-called “Rx” strategies: reduce, reuse, refurbishment, recycling… There are multiple mechanisms by which these strategies can mitigate dissipation. For example the reduced consumption of CRMs, for which reduced exploitation of reserves would proportionally represent fewer losses along the supply chain; or better collection and recycling of CRMs in waste streams that would directly help to avoid the potential value loss of the now-recovered materials. Reuse and refurbishment strategies induce an extension of the lifespan of products and consequently reduce the demand for virgin material.

Current efforts to mitigate dissipation align with the paradigm of the circular economy: reduced consumption, less waste, better and cheaper recovery. However, there are still main challenges present regarding the implementation of mitigation strategies that are related to physical limits (technology readiness, quality of recovery, energy requirement, etc.), economic limitations (costs of secondary and primary sourcing, securing input flows, access to secondary markets, etc.), and social constraints (labour, location of plants, interaction with the community, etc.).

In an ever-changing world, future efforts must also consider a holistic approach when tackling concerns regarding CRMs.

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