What are Critical Raw Materials?
The CRM Alliance describes Critical Raw Materials as:
A common misunderstanding about Critical Raw Materials is that they are ‘critical’ because there are limited amounts left. This misconception may come from the fact that we call animals ‘critically endangered’ if their species is considered to be facing high risk of extinction in the wild. However, this is not the case with CRMs. The CRM Alliance state that the following are characteristics of CRMs :
- They have significant economic importance to key sectors in the economy.
- They have a high-risk due to high important dependence and high level of concentration of set critical raw materials in particular countries.
- There is a lack of viable substitutes, due to the unique properties of these materials.
The EU publishes lists of CRMs every 3 years. In 2020, the list shows that there are 30 materials considered to be Critical Raw Materials. This number has increased by 16 since 2011.
Why are CRMs important?
Critical Raw Materials are essential for nearly all our electronic, life-saving and green technologies. Many CRMs are particularly essential for information and communication technology (ICT) devices and advanced electronics.
The EU Critical Raw Materials for Strategic Technologies and Sectors in the EU report states that the digital ICT industry has three main features:
- It uses a wide and increasing range of elements to enable the desired electronic, magnetic, optical or mechanical properties needed for chips and devices.
- The large number of chips and devices that are produced each year suggest that even incremental uses in certain elements can amount to meaningful volumes of material relative to current supply.
- The speed of technology introduction cycles can be faster than the time scales associated with other aspects of the supply chain.
The report shows that there are 23 CRMs used in the manufacture of ICT devices. Furthermore, there are other raw materials that are used to ensure that ICT equipment functions properly. For example, helium is used to create low operating temperatures close to absolute zero, which is needed for quantum computing technologies and semiconductors.
You can see all the 23 CRMs in the table below, along with their uses in ICT manufacture.
Why is it such a problem?
Technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, that the increase of use of ICT devices is huge. This is mostly down to the increase of use of smartphones. It has been estimated that the use of smartphones will increase in future years. 130 million units were sold in 2018 and it is estimated that 180 million units will be sold in 2035. Simply put, the increase of use of ICT devices requires more CRM to manufacture them.
Furthermore, we have a developing e-waste problem. In 2019, 53.6 million metric tonnes of electronic waste was produced worldwide. However, only 17.4 % was collected and recycled. It is estimated that by 2030 we will generate 74 million metric tonnes of electronic waste. The amount of waste collected and recycled is not enough to keep up with the growth of amount of waste generated. If all this e-waste goes to landfill, CRMs are being thrown away unnecessarily. This puts increased pressure on the environment as more new raw materials will need to be extracted for manufacture.
When we think about how we can help the environment, the first thing most people will turn to is recycling. However, when recycling electronic devices, it’s not always possible to recover all the materials. Therefore, CRMs are often thrown away during the recycling process if another material has been prioritised. Again, this wastes a good material and means that more CRMs are required to be mined for future manufacture of goods.
How can we solve the problem?
As explained above, recycling shouldn’t be our first port of call. We should initially look at reducing and reusing materials to relieve pressures on the environment. By reusing CRMs in new devices, we can reduce the amount of new CRMs needed to be extracted from the Earth.
Buying refurbished equipment is one way that you can put this into practice. Refurbished equipment uses treated and tested existing components. This means that in order for you to get the device, no new raw materials have had to be mined. One simple act of buying refurbished products could relieve the pressure on the environment and the economy. The raw materials that otherwise would have been used to manufacture new products can be used elsewhere.
At Zixtel, we are committed to providing businesses with sustainable IT solutions. If you require further information on how you can make environmentally friendly decisions for your business, we would be happy to help.