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Making mining and metals more circular

Five articles exploring pathways to greater circular economy in mining and metals…

To build a more sustainable future for society requires more metals and that, whether we like it or not, requires more mining.

While it is possible to reduce pressure on the primary extraction of minerals and metals through practices such as recycling, it’s simply not possible to recycle our way to the scale of supply required to meet the demands of the green energy transition.

The World Economic Forum forecasts that, in some cases, mineral production will need to increase by nearly 500% by 2050.

“The complication is that we do not currently have enough metals in circulation, even with recycling taken into consideration,” it states in its 2022 article ‘3 circular economy approaches to reduce demand for critical metals’.

“A fully circular economy is much more than recycling,” it says. “It is keeping materials at their highest value. It is time to look beyond circular materials.”

The authors suggest three mindset changes to reduce demand for critical metals: promoting the shift from owning to using goods, generating a preference for longevity and building pride in second-hand items. It’s a good read; go check it out.

Lean on the data

In this excellent article for Circular Economy Leaders Canada ‘Mining for circularity: the inconvenient (and promising) truth of the role of minerals in a circular economy’ (props for the title guys), Alan Young and Geoff McCarney explain that…

“There is an interesting irony in the fact that if we are going to transition to a green energy future, and meet low-carbon emission targets we are going to have to do a whole lot more mining…

“the data is pretty consistent on this topic, and for a variety of reasons this means we are going to have to mine differently, while reconsidering our use of materials all along the metals and minerals value chain (from extraction to end-of-life)”.

But where to start? Young and McCarney suggest that data surrounding resource value is a good place.

“Informed by this kind of data, a circular economy approach can then offer help in designing processes that address waste and hazard concerns more precisely and in a way that taps into economic benefits, rather than just the liabilities that tend to prevent waste streams from being considered as resources,” they state.

Foster innovation

In ‘The circular economy: A sustainable future for mining and the world’, Bruce Connell interviews Associate Professor, Glen Corder from The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute (SMI).

Professor Corder believes that the mining industry needs to explore different ways of thinking to meet the challenge of juggling economic viability, social performance and environmental responsibility.

“The mining sector can embrace the concept of a circular economy by looking both inside and outside the sector to identify opportunities to repurpose, reuse or recycle,” he says.

The duo explores two innovative opportunities centred on the upcycling of by-products and wastes from mining processes and industrial symbiosis.

If you’re also interested in cutting-edge research, the article details some of the SMI’s research into hyperaccumulator plants which sequester metals from their local environment, and how this ability could help to support more sustainable extraction.

Work together to identify opportunities

If you prefer to watch or listen to content, the Smart Prosperity Institute has a recording of the ‘Circularity Across the Mining and Metals Value Chain’ accelerator session from the World Circular Economy Forum 2021 event.

It’s a lengthy video at nearly three hours, but it’s broken up into presentations and panel discussions so you can pick and choose aspects that interest you the most and the line-up of experts is top notch.

Overall, the session focused on deepening the understanding of how the circular economy relates to primary metals and minerals along international supply chains for different commodities.

There was consensus from participants that, to move forward requires an improved understanding of the expectations of different stakeholders along the value chain; clarification of essential enabling conditions for key actors and regions along international supply chains; and identification of opportunities to motivate broader collaboration and pre-competitive (circular) innovation in the sector.

To go deeper requires trust

This above accelerator session was co-designed and presented by Circular Economy Leadership Canada, the Smart Prosperity Institute, Materials Efficiency Research Group and Coreo.

Following the event, the organisers produced this super insightful report ‘Mining for circularity: five strategic insights’ which summarises some of the key learnings and includes some interesting data.

For example, when asked what they saw as the primary barrier preventing greater collaboration or open innovation to move towards a circular economy in mining and metals, 45% of survey participants cited competitive pressures.

Clearly, there are trust issues that the industry needs to overcome if it is to fully participate in and enjoy the benefits of a large-scale circular economy. But this is just one aspect that needs consideration and I’d really recommend reading the report; it’s chock full of insights and details on how companies can get behind the industry’s efforts in circular economy.

Do you have any recommendations to add to this reading list? If so, please link them in the comments below – it’s good to share!

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