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The Next Economy
Beyond Recycling:
Report Highlights Need for Circular Approach to Critical Raw Materials

The report from CISL's Corporate Leaders Group showcases the challenges, opportunities and business best practices of embracing more circular practices in CRM use through case studies from Ball, Volvo Cars and more.

The Corporate Leaders Group (CLG) Europe’s Materials & Products Taskforce has released a new report in partnership with Germany's Wuppertal Institute that highlights the urgent need for more circularity in critical raw materials.

Embracing circularity: A pathway for strengthening the Critical Raw Materials Act is a direct response to the EU’s proposal for the Critical Raw Materials Act (CRMA) that offers a comprehensive look at critical raw materials that considers geopolitics, policies and business case studies.

True circularity is far more than just recycling — it also involves looking at how to keep the value of materials in the system more effectively and for longer. The report maintains that this aspect of circularity is not sufficiently addressed by the current CRMA proposal.

Centering on three key materials — aluminum (bauxite and magnesium), lithium and rare earth elements, the report builds on evidence-based research; it also includes circular case studies from businesses including Ball, Umicore and Volvo Cars; and provides recommendations to policymakers.

Raw materials play a crucial role in the transition to a cleaner economy — particularly, in the manufacturing of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries. As a result, demand in the EU is set to soar over the coming years — lithium demand in particular is expected to be 12 times higher in the EU by 2030; and, globally, 90 times higher by 2050.

But with 24 of the materials listed in the CRMA imported from China, plus the environmental damage and societal impact of more domestic mines in Europe, the importance of the EU’s strategic autonomy has come into sharper focus.

The report from CLG Europe — one of several Corporate Leaders Groups convened by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) — asserts that a circular economy in the EU would increase security of supply for critical raw materials. Circular practices require a more deliberate shift towards reuse models, which could play a key role in managing supply.

“Global competition is heating up around key materials and the climate is heating up in response to our carbon emissions; but by adopting a more circular economy, Europe can turbocharge its response to both challenges in one go,” says Eliot Whittington, Chief Systems Change Officer at CISL. “As the EU negotiates its Critical Raw Materials Act, it should seize the opportunity to scale up circularity. European policymakers should look to learn from how leading businesses across sectors are already implementing a wide range of circular solutions in critical raw materials use; and facilitate the finance flows and flexible, targeted policies needed to take these approaches to scale — accelerating the EU’s journey to climate neutrality and strategic autonomy.”

The report showcases the challenges, opportunities and business best practices of embracing more circular practices in CRM use, using case studies from members of the Materials & Products Taskforce and other identified company stakeholders along the value chains of lithium, aluminum and rare earth elements; examples include materials technology company Umicore — which has developed battery-recycling technology with capacity for 7,000 tonnes per year, and aluminum packaging giant Ball’s target to achieve 90 percent recycling and an 85 percent recycled content target by 2030.

Recommendations to policymakers include how to:

  • Implement a more comprehensive circular approach within the CRMA, rather than focusing only on recycling.

  • Set a flexible approach towards circularity within the CRMA that recognizes the need for a case-by-case approach.

  • Deploy forward-looking infrastructure to enable a systems-wide circular economy.

  • Set a clear overall vision on a European Industrial Strategy that combines circularity, carbon neutrality and further sustainability aspects.

  • Create more environmentally and socially sustainable supply chains by diversifying supply chains and promoting responsible mining practices.

  • Implement financial incentives and support schemes to expedite the commercial viability of a shift towards clean technologies.

“Shifting to a circular economy is vital in achieving a climate-neutral and more competitive EU by 2050,” says We Mean Business Coalition CEO María Mendiluce. “Enhanced circularity should also be applied to the growing usage of critical raw materials, given their essential role in the green and digital transitions. The EU’s Critical Raw Materials Act is a welcome development, but it needs to go beyond the narrow focus on recycling; and it needs to be properly embedded into the broader industrial and sustainability strategy of the EU. Policymakers should aim to enable a systems-wide circular economy that fully harnesses the economic, environmental and social benefits of circularity — and this report provides essential recommendations on this matter.”