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Circular mining: as without, so within

To create circular mine sites, requires circular thinking. Carly Leonida explains why we need to consider the bigger picture surrounding future metals supply to instigate lasting change

It’s widely accepted that the green energy transition is wholly dependent upon metals that the mining industry produces, and that circularity will be key in negating the effects of both extraction and consumption on the planet.

The concept of circular economy is founded upon interconnectedness. However, to create feedback loops and ensure the continual flow of value in metals production requires a significant shift in mindset.

Mining is an industry that has, for some time, been reliant on linear pathways for products and services. It’s also one that considers itself to be different to the rest… Set apart by its ‘unparalleled complexity’.

Achieving circularity will require us to consider the industry as just one part of an ecosystem, or a cog in a much larger machine. Treat them as separate and, in time, the cog will fail to fit and turn in the way that it should. And this particular machine is dynamic; ill-fitting cogs can be made obsolete.

I recently attended an excellent presentation that gave some much needed perspective on this topic. Professor Richard Herrington of London’s Natural History Museum delivered the inaugural MinSouth lecture of 2022 virtually on January 13. The topic of ‘Mining our way towards a green future’ was perfect given the backdrop of COP26 and also the fact that I was writing this article.

Herrington is an economic geologist and has advised the UK government in developing its net-zero strategy. He explained that mining is absolutely fundamental in achieving the main goals of COP26, particularly in securing a global net-zero future by mid-century with a 1.5oC maximum temperature rise, and in adapting to protect communities and habitats.

More minerals, more problems?

COP26 and its proceedings highlighted, not only the urgency of the green energy transition but also the mineral intensity.

According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) 2021 report on The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, the mineral requirements of an energy system powered by clean energy technologies differ widely to one run on fossil fuels. For example, a typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car, and an offshore wind plant requires 13 times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant.

Herrington explained that to meet future projections for both critical metals and bulk commodities demand which is, in certain cases, phenomenal – graphite, lithium and cobalt, could increase by nearly 500% by 2050 according to the World Bank – requires an integrated approach.

A wind plant requires 13 times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant. Image: Unsplash
A wind plant requires 13 times more mineral resources than a similarly sized gas-fired power plant. Image: Unsplash

This includes a steady pipeline of greenfield mining projects; Herrington said that lead times for new mines today vary from 12.5 years up to 20 years for most commodities, and collaboration with communities and governments will be key to expediting this process.

A little closer to home, the reinvigoration of historic mining districts like Cornwall in the UK, and Kiruna in Sweden, offer significant potential for sourcing minerals like lithium. Most of these have mature supporting industries which could also benefit. The exploration of brownfield prospects (extensions to currently mined orebodies and satellite deposits) will be another contributor, and some newer, less conventional prospects (deep sea mining, anyone?) could also be key.

In addition to new sources of metals, more efficient extraction processes for current mining operations will also play a role (more on this later), along with better recycling systems for metals that are currently in circulation.

Why recycling isn’t enough

Many environmentalists will argue that recycling is the answer to future metals shortages. While it will have a role to play, even if we could recycle 100% of current supply, which is impossible today, increased demand means that need would still outstrip supply in the future.

Herrington used the example of titanium to illustrate this: around 90% of titanium in circulation today is recycled. However, this only satisfies about 50% of current demand. Another factor is the time lag between manufacturing and a product reaching its end of life; the electric vehicles produced today probably won’t begin to be recycled until 2030.

Very little lithium, graphite or cobalt (all important components in electric batteries) is recycled today. However, the IEA states that by 2040, the recycling and reuse of batteries from electric cars and storage systems could reduce the primary supply requirement for some minerals by up to 12%.

In short, recycling does have a role to play in a low-carbon, circular future. However, to keep global temperature rises to a minimum, more metals and mining are necessary. It’s therefore important that this mining is ‘done right’.

Cradle-to-cradle mining

Herrington closed his presentation by explaining that the cradle-to-cradle concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Braungart will be critical in reducing the negative impacts of future of mining operations, and in the industry maintaining its social license to operate.

Once society does decide to mine, we need to do it in a way that considers the entire mine lifecycle and creates a net positive effect for both people and the environment.

Both the current mine lifecycle and the way in which mining businesses are structured are quite segmented which makes this ambition hard to achieve. However, Herrington argued that revolutionising workflows and structures will make it easier to protect and reconstruct ecosystems, and incorporating inherent regeneration will mean that when extraction ends, the landscape is ready for the next lease holder.

Environmental and social governance (ESG) done right could also drive other benefits such as the creation of local supply chains and the restoration of biodiversity.

Of course, redesigning mining processes and protocols is much easier at greenfield operations which typically have fewer physical and financial constraints. Brownfield projects tend to be committed to certain footprints and technologies.

Although it’s far from impossible, I’ve read very little about the practical steps and strategies that mines (both new and existing) can take to incorporate circular principles into their operations.

I was therefore delighted to read the paper Circular economy for mining operations: key concepts, drivers and opportunities, written by Alan Young and Laura Barreto of MERG and Karen Chovan of Enviro Integration Strategies, and published in December by Natural Resources Canada.

The paper highlights the myriad ways in which mines can participate in and practice circular economy, from on site to beyond via partnerships, as well as through materials, equipment, infrastructure and land use. Again, the cradle-to-cradle concept is central to these efforts.

Chovan, who spoke to me in 2020 about opportunities for greater circularity in mining, joined me to discuss the paper in early January.

“It addresses an initiative under the Canadian Mining and Metals Plan (CMMP),” she told me. “To optimise circularity in mining requires us to think beyond the footprint of individual sites, and to partner with neighbouring and/or different commodity producers (co-opetition?) and other companies within the supply network, including buyers and end-users. The paper gives lots of practical examples on how that can be done.

“Every site, every commodity and region is unique. There is no single blueprint for how a fully circular mine should look, so we’ve explored all of the possibilities and how they can be pieced together to create a solution that works for each mine site.”

Recycling does have a role to play in a low-carbon, circular future. However, to keep global temperature rises to a minimum, more metals and mining are necessary. Image: Unsplash
Recycling does have a role to play in a low-carbon, circular future. However, to keep global temperature rises to a minimum, more metals and mining are necessary. Image: Unsplash

Sustainable is circular (and vice versa)

Circularity doesn’t replace sustainable development; the two go hand in hand.

The report explains: “Circular economy complements and builds on ‘responsible mining’ programs by bringing disparate initiatives under an integrated strategy. By solving for mine waste, water risks, energy use and carbon emissions, disturbed and impacted lands, and social impact concerns through a systems-based integrated strategy, circular economy contributes to responsible mining.”

In essence, circular economy strategies focus on transformative approaches that design waste and pollution out of products and services, while capturing greater economic value throughout supply networks by rethinking the linear business models we see today.

For mines looking to incorporate circular principles into their operations, some key areas outlined in the paper include:

  • Stock optimisation – extending the value of materials;
  • Eco-effectiveness – going beyond eco-efficiency;
  • Eliminating the concept of waste by extending resource value;
  • Extended producer responsibility;
  • Circular product and process design; and,
  • Creation of social value for everyone.

“Circular practices introduce mechanisms to reduce water and energy consumption and CO2 emissions, and to eliminate the generation of waste,” state the authors. “These lead to reductions in costs related to operational risk management and consumption in general.”

The report suggests that, where natural resources must be used, mines should consider low impact options. For example, using mine-impacted waters from the site in place of fresh water, or replacing fossil fuel-based power systems with renewable energy and hybrid electric options.

Extracting embedded value from mining wastes to make the most out of stored geological resources, extending materials life and industrial symbiosis i.e. creating value through waste exchanges with others, could also be helpful. In mine reclamation, shifting the focus from harm reduction to value generation could involve regenerating land for recreational, commercial, agricultural purposes and restoring natural ecological systems.

Of course, better management of natural resources is just one way in which mines can benefit from circular principles. To derive the maximum value from these initiatives, a comprehensive approach to circularity is required across businesses and across the mine lifecycle.

And so, this article has (pardon the pun) come full circle.

As with so many initiatives, the key in making mining practices more circular will lie in steady progress. Each and every change, however small, will start to add up in time.

The most important thing is to commit to making change happen and to bear in mind the ecosystem approach that we discussed earlier.

Keep the bigger picture in mind.

Reading list…
I don’t usually finish articles with a reading list (we save that for the newsletter!) However, on this occasion, I found a treasure trove of online resources that I felt would be helpful to share.

1 comment on “Circular mining: as without, so within

  1. Pingback: Metals & Minerals - Circular Economy Leadership Canada

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