Which materials are critical to the European Union?
Identifying the critical materials to the European Union is critical. We also need to consider on what basis their criticality should be assessed and what are the implications of a material being identified as critical. The European Commission is in the process of preparing a report on critical raw materials in the circular economy. This is why EASAC recently commissioned a number of projects on the circular economy, and why the report – Critical Raw Materials – was produced.
The report is available for free in the Royal Irish Academy’s website (download here).
The Royal Irish Academy is a member of the European Academies Science Advisory Committee (EASAC ). EASAC is formed by the national science academies of the EU Member States to enable them to collaborate with each other in giving advice to European policy-makers.
This report reviews briefly the historical criteria for critical raw materials currently under review by the Commission and the Joint Research Centre (JRC), and notes that many critical materials still have very low recycling rates which increases the demand for virgin materials and therefore reduces lifetime of supply.
EASAC recognises limitations on available data that would allow the Commission to measure environmental impacts and risks related to extraction and processing, but encourages the Commission to continue work on developing a methodology to consider environmental and social considerations outside the European Union (EU).
The report compares the energy and water consumption requirements for production of metals from primary ores with those for recycling, and shows the major reductions in environmental impact that can be achieved through increased recycling.
The Commission considers substitution and recycling rates as factors in its criticality assessments but EASAC cautions against relying too much on substitution as a solution to anticipated supply constraints. Insufficient attention is given to the basic geological distribution of critical elements, and EASAC offers some potential approaches to analysing scarcity and identifying which elements are likely to be at risk of future scarcity.
The report considers securing the future supply of critical materials from two angles:
- Firstly, measures that can be taken to increase supply, where a fundamental point is that many of the anticipated critical elements are associated in nature with ‘attractor’ or ‘carrier’ base metals and therefore can be co-products of a primary metal smelter. Increasing supply in Europe is part of the EU Raw Materials Initiative but the strategy needs to take into account this complex interrelationship. Producers of base metals are key sources of critical elements so that supply is dependent on taking a systems-integrated metal production approach. By improving the extent to which these critical materials are separated from their carrier base metals, it is possible to significantly increase their supply within the EU.
- The second approach is to improve recycling rates for critical materials, some of which are very low. Consumer goods are an important source but the elements are distributed at low concentrations over a wide range of products which have to be collected for recycle. The report analyses some of the logistical and technological challenges to this and concludes that there is substantial potential for improving recycling. However, ensuring efficient use and recovery of critical materials requires a different approach from the broad targets previously applied to recovery rates of bulk materials.
EASAC is in broad agreement with the criteria that the Commission proposes to apply in selecting critical materials for the new list in 2017 but notes that environmental impacts of extraction of raw materials are substantial and should be considered in the criticality assessment.