One of the main reasons why we are talking about the Circular Economy today is because of material insecurity. This term is connected to the fact that many materials that are used in consumer products and things making up our physical world are critical. Different people have raised this issue over the past years and since 2010, the European Union has specifically identified what are these materials.
For the European Union (2014) a material was defined to be critical taking into account two aspects: supply risk and economic relevance. The first one is defined as the concentration of a material supply in a country with poor governance which could lead to unstable supply. The second element depends on the uses of the specific material and how important these uses are to economic mega sectors.
What are the most critical materials from an European perspective and who are the bigger suppliers?
Many of us are not familiar with these names but almost everybody uses something that has some of these materials inside. For example, according to Namibia Rare Earths Inc company only Rare Earths Elements are used in camera lenses, hydrogen storage, electric motors for hybrid cars, color tv screens, shielding in nuclear reactors or steel production. As it can be seen, uses are very different but very relevant for our today's life style. Other critical materials for Europe, that are not that exotic for the common citizen are natural rubber, pulpwood and swan softwood.
According to the European Union there are three groups whose demand is going to grow very strongly in the coming years: niobium, gallium and Heavy REE. Niobium is used as an input in the aviation and aerospace industries (USGS, 2014). Gallium, on the other hand is used in the electronic industry, especially for smartphones and not so high tech uses such as mirrors (USGS, 2013). Heavy REE are used also in a range of applications that you can find here.
Why is material insecurity driving Circular Economy?
If these materials are not readily available in a raw state then where should businesses look for them, one might ask. The obvious answer would be to look at the products that are made of them. So, if we want to reduce the material insecurity of the European industries that use these materials, a transformation needs to be implemented: reduce supply from external sources and replace them within the economic activity.
The answer to these to tasks is given by the Circular Economy and by a circular approach to innovation. Elements such as reuse, remanufacturing and recycling have to be incorporated in the development path that is to be followed for a future where critical raw materials are not a restriction for value creation within society. These approaches reduce use of materials, replace other materials, creates value from non-material activities and allows an economy to work under sustainability principles.