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Already in 2004 Stefan Böschen, Armin Reller and Jens Soentgen published their story-of-stuff-approach [1]. The authors show that the first foundations for today's Circular Economy were laid in chemistry in the second half of the twentieth century, with the production of new synthetic materials in unprecedented quantities. With this development away from the natural substances the by-production of contaminants also increased and their regulation became soon necessary. Science, the government and industry have developed a set of rules that has been made more and more rigorous by various major accidents in industry and by the emergence of environmental movements. REACH, the European Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals which entered into force in 2007 and replaced the former legislative framework for chemicals in the EU, is the answer in view of the ecological and societal risks, which might be related with such substances.


Figure 1:  Story of Stuff-Approach (Böschen et al. [1])


A “material history” (Stuff approach see figure 1) going along with a substance should not only investigate it from its source as e.g. a raw material through its manufacturing processes up to its user and finally its end. But it should also be viewed in the context of its cultural, political and economic influences. Among other things, the life-cycle analysis of substances or products is mentioned, but "soft factors" should be included as well as the consumption behaviour of the various societies and their handling of products to which they are exposed daily. The political and legal aspects are also important, and one should not only refer to the own country, but also include in models and assessments the countries from which the raw materials and semi-finished products originate or in which the products are supplied. It is important to have a holistic understanding of the links, not only on a political or economic level, but also for the "average man in the street", the consumer who uses these products and either throws them away or collects them for recycling. This type of "Circular Economy, Ecology and Society" can not be conceived as a short-lived instrument, but must be well planned with a view of longer periods.

In 2015 the European Commission published a Communication from The Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on “Closing the loop - An EU action plan for the Circular Economy” by which “The transition to a more circular economy, where the value of products, materials and resources is maintained in the economy for as long as possible, and the generation of waste is minimised, represents an essential contribution to the EU's efforts to develop a sustainable, low carbon, resource efficient and competitive economy. Such transition is the opportunity to transform our economy and generate new and sustainable competitive advantages for Europe starting at the very beginning of a product's life. Both the design phase and production processes have an impact on sourcing, resource use and waste generation throughout a product's life”. Various actions are mentioned which will run for the next few years at national and European level, for example: [2]

•    Ecodesign work plan 2015-2017 and request to European standardisation organisations to develop standards on material efficiency for setting future Ecodesign requirements on durability, reparability and recyclability of products
•    Establishing an open, pan-European network of technological infrastructures for SMEs to integrate advanced manufacturing technologies into their production processes
•    Further development of the EU raw materials information system

And regarding Critical raw materials:

•    Report on critical raw materials and the circular economy
•    Improve exchange of information between manufacturers and recyclers on electronic products
•    European standards for material-efficient recycling of electronic waste, waste batteries and other relevant complex end-of-life products
•    Sharing best practices for the recovery of critical raw materials from mining waste and landfills

In Germany the “closed loop recycling” has a long tradition based on the 1994 Act for Promoting Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management and Ensuring Environmentally Compatible Waste Disposal (KrWG) which was amended in February 2012 and entered into force in June 2012. It is based on a five-step waste hierarchy  including waste avoidance; re-use; recycling; energy recovery; and disposal [3].

In October this year the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Germany published a report from Henning Wilts  on “Germany On The Road To A Circular Economy?” [4] The author questions whether the production of waste really represents a necessary evil of our mode of production or if a world without or less waste becomes possible? And he mentions alternative approaches which change only by name “such as the circular economy, zero waste, closed-cycle, resource efficiency, waste avoidance, reuse, and recycling” that means ways to become aware of the problems that goes along with the massive use of materials – also like water, food or materials to produce energy -  and by this the disappearance of resources if we do not care for the waste and its potential to re-use the materials that it contains. He states that a “world without waste can only be achieved with a holistic concept… taking into account approaches such as avoidance, reuse and recycling of both materials and energy at every stage of the product life cycle to ensure environmental product design from the outset – with recycling at the end”. I do not think that a “world without waste” is a realistic approach, however to reduce and re-use materials wherever possible would be useful for our future society. The idea to change from a linear economy to a “close cycles system” may help already when discussing an idea for new materials, new products as this idea needs already to have the end of the cycle in mind and help to avoid “pillar thinking” when we discuss materials issue in sharply defined areas like education – research – development – processing and finishing of a product with not much emphasis on the links between each step towards the demand of the end-users. Furthermore, we leave these end users alone with the decision what how to deal with the product after its lifetime.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, very active in this field, presents a definition for Circular Economy indicating  “that it is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles”[5] . This new approach is based among others on two facts:

1.    A change in the way of using natural resources for energy. Politics moved away from non-renewable energy like oil or coal which is linked to global and worldwide concerns about their consumption and all kinds of pollution, and also from nuclear energy related to problems with the hazard waste and possible high impact incidents for the society like the Fukushima disaster in 2011 towards a politics of renewable energy and a better handling to minimize the energy consumption

2.    A change in the way of using natural materials resources. Due to the fact that Europe is poor in raw materials resources however a leading economy for innovative and emerging products necessary for our economic growth and to attack societal problems, the economy is very much depending on those countries which have the necessary resources. In the early years of the 21st century important raw materials were not available or only at high prices and with risks of supply. Therefore, the European Commission launched the Raw Materials Initiative in 2008 which “set out a strategy for tackling the issue of access to raw materials in the EU by a strategy of three pillars which aim to ensure [6] : fair and sustainable supply of raw materials from global markets and within the EU and a better resource efficiency and supply of secondary raw materials through recycling”.

Janez Potocnik, European Commissioner for the Environment states in his foreword to the Report “Towards a Circular Economy” from 2013 [7]  that  “the European Commission has chosen to respond to these challenges by moving to a more restorative economic system that drives substantial and lasting improvements of our resource productivity. It is our choice how, and how fast, we want to manage this inevitable transition.”

If one is concerned with the Circular Economy within the framework of the materials, it is striking that the topic becomes more and more important since the mid of the 20th century, when more and more materials/elements were necessary to build up the requested functions of the components and especially by the beginning of the 21st century, when scarcity of raw materials - and especially the rare earth metals - have become increasingly important (see figure 2 and 3). As well as some other elements they are vital for innovative products in industrial sectors such as communication, energy and transportation. Europe, owning very few metal ores, is fully dependent on importing metals from other countries. This situation poses a substantial risk of possible supply disruptions of raw and semi-processed materials and components. A problem of awareness concerning supply shortages are especially concern minerals where specific legal requirements have to be met (Dodd Frank legislation in the US, other regulations in Europe).


Figure 2: Intensively used Elements and the drivers behind (Adapted after Achzet / Reller, 2011)

It is often difficult to substitute these materials due to their special functions when processed towards components, which can not simply be exchanged by other elements or components which are more easily to access. The MATCH Project under HORIZON 2020 evaluated the materials and their applications in more than 1000 R&D projects (see Figure 3) and it could be shown that smart materials inclusive coatings and surface structuring are used the most and that applications like energy, followed by manufacturing and transport are the most important fields of application.


Figure 3: Materials research and development and its application (Data from the Project MATCH, funded by HORIZON 2020 under grant agreement n°: 646031)

Frequently, industries underestimate the challenges with regard to availability & cost and of functions of substitute materials for mass production. Besides availability, the question of “deployability” has to be raised: it is not only important what is theoretically available, but also what can be used under legislation and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) aspects. CSR is today relevant for European companies, also from an economical point of view: image and reputation depend amongst others on a company’s sourcing policies and its control of impact on the upstream side of the value chain. Further to possible disruptions, the quality of bought materials is also an important aspect. Imports from countries with different or less standards and dispersed supply chains put hurdles on quality control; thus, monitoring systems have to be implemented to ensure a certain quality standard.

Therefore, systems such as "closing the loop" are not only interesting from an ecological and energy perspective, but also from the procurement and utilization of critical raw materials and the control of information about their composition in view of their recycling and re-use. Although a metal’s purity can be fully re-established with proper smelting and refining – e.g. gold or copper on the market has often been re-cycled several times – there are other metals or element compositions which are difficult or too expensive to recycle or can only be down-cycled, i.e. the quality is reduced and the range of applications for which they can be used is very limited. Further on recycled products often bear the reputation of being of lower quality and posing the risk of product failure.

Better information for designers, manufacturers and consumers would be important to help in encouraging a design towards better recycling, improve the recycling rate and steadily inform about new recycling methods to promote a better handling of materials during the whole value chain. As the development of new materials can take up to 10 or 15 years, it would be necessary to discuss the availability of certain materials already during the development and demonstrator phase, i.e. that also universities and Research Technology Organisations, RTO’s should have checklists for new developments. Based on the experience of the author this is not yet the case at many of the materials departments.


Figure 4: 20 Critical Elements and the World primary supply [8]

Similar to the problem of legislation and price insecurities, end-of-life issues are often not considered. Short end-of-life products like electronics with only 2 to 3 years of useful life, consumer goods like small household machines or larger ones like washing machines with about 5 to 12 years and cars with max. about 9 to 10 years become an important “urban mine” for technology metals such as precious and special metals which can be further exploited through comprehensive recycling. The circular economy strategy of the European Union can become an important trigger for improvements in this aspect. Recycling and remanufacturing should be considered early in the development and design phase to ensure alignment with current and future legislation, probable additional costs and enhance sustainability.

A compositional characterisation of the "urban mine" is a necessary prerequisite to optimise the recovery of critical raw materials. However, existing data are scattered amongst a variety of institutions including government agencies, geological surveys, universities, NGOs and industry. In addition, where data relates to the composition of products and waste fractions, different sampling, sample preparation and chemical analysis approaches may have been applied, which makes it challenging to aggregate and compare data. In the EU Horizon 2020 project "Prospecting Secondary raw materials from the Urban mine and Mining wastes" (ProSUM) [9]  a comprehensive, standardised and harmonised inventory of critical raw materials stocks and flows is currently constructed at national and regional levels across Europe.

The Journal of Industrial Ecology from 2006 has published an article from Zengwei Yuan, Jun Bi, and Yuichi Moriguichi on The Circular Economy, a new development strategy in China in which China’s transformation from a planned economy to a market-based one and open to foreign trade and investment was the important step towards a revived economy. This growth highlights also another side of the coin by having a resource depletion and environmental negligence and by this the seriousness of the situation for the society.  Z. Yuan mentioned in this article that “recent research has pointed out that growth of the gross domestic product (GDP) in China has significantly reduced the opportunities of future generations to enjoy natural and environmental resources”.

There are further reports like that from the The European Environment Agency [7] which are discussing the current situation of production and consumption and especially the end of the utility period of goods and their recycling or re-use. One of the important factors to minimize or optimize the use of materials and other natural resources is related to the so called Eco-design to allow “a longer life, enabling upgrading, reuse, refurbishment and remanufacture and sustainable and minimal use of resources and enabling high-quality recycling of materials at the end of a product's life”.  They also propose to improve the recycling processes so to “avoiding down-cycling (converting waste materials or products into new materials or products of lesser quality) and mixing and contaminating materials”. This could help a European economy by “industrial symbiosis (collaboration between companies whereby the wastes or by-products of one become a resource for another)” . The Circular Economy can have a positive or negative impact on the society. A more closed production chain could create new jobs in Europe, but the question is whether the industry will be able to switch to product service systems for further low-paid jobs. It is also necessary to ask whether and how this conversion can be paid for, since not everything will have to be passed on to the industry. The citizen, who wants a more environmentally friendly future, will have to take part in this task. But the question arises as to which sections of society can do this, and how we can avoid to discriminate between certain social groups.


Figure 5: Circular Economy and Source efficiency [10]

Overall, it is important to intensify the research efforts (also an aim in the EAA report of 2016), in the field of materials and in cooperation with other faculties such as industrial design, but also (macro)-economics, social science and environmental sciences. It will be important to gather more fact-based knowledge and evaluated information and to make this available in databases to scientists, industry and politics. By doing so models and action sequences can be made transparent and based on common facts. Here, it still has a lot of demand and ongoing research necessary.

Author: Margarethe Hofmann-Amtenbrink

Dr.-Ing. Margarethe Hofmann-Amtenbrink is owner and CEO of MatSearch Consulting Hofmann, Pully Switzerland, CEO of the ESM Foundation, Zurich, Switzerland and FEMS Immediate Past President.


[1] Stefan Böschen, Armin Reller und Jens Soentgen, "Stoffgeschichten – eine neue Perspektive für transdisziplinäre Umweltforschung“, GAIA 13 (2004) no. 1, pp 19-25
[2] For more information please check
[10] The economy: resource efficient, green and circular, The European Environment Agency, Published 02 Jun 2014, Last modified 31 Aug 2016, 03:14 PM: