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From waste to value: exploring business opportunities in the circular paradigm

The discussion on circularity in the mining industry is intriguing because, despite its complexity, the case for it is so compelling...

The mining industry is the source industry for many others, and it’s also the provider of the raw materials needed for the renewable energy transition. In addition, minerals have unique properties of durability, recyclability, and adaptability, making them ideal materials for the closed loops of production.

Thus, no industry seems better positioned to lead the change towards adopting circular practices and positively influencing downstream value and supply chains.

It’s no secret that the linear economy is clearly showing its limitations, and that something needs to happen, and fast.

The challenge: exponential demand and waste increases

If the demand for resources increases as expected, to 130 billion tons by 2050 (compared to 50 billion tons in 2014), we will be overusing the Earth’s total capacity by more than 400%, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) 2017 report.

What’s less well known and less obvious is that, according to a 2019 article cited by Mining Technology, the worldwide generation of solid wastes from the primary production of mineral and metal commodities is estimated at over 100 billion tons per year.

Considering that the ratio of useful material to waste can be staggeringly low in mining (with ore grades below 1% in the case of gold, for example) and grades for all base and precious metals continuing to decline further, this means the total amount of waste generated in the extraction and production of primary materials is going to increase steeper than the projected increase in resources.

Outline of the circular economy. Source: CEO guide to the circular economy

Making it real: the quest for new business models

At this point, the task seems daunting. How can this linear upward demand be reversed, and these enormous waste piles turned into something valuable, let alone design out waste from the start?

How can products and materials be kept in the system at their highest utility amidst the complexity of global value chains? How can value be captured from minerals, metals, and materials at the end of their lifespans, so they don’t drop out of the circle but remain in the loop? And how can that be turned into a profitable business?

In other words, what does it look like when resource companies embrace new business opportunities by rethinking value and the generation of value?

Looking at concrete use cases can help make it tangible how the core objectives of circular economy (CE) – design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials at their highest value for as long as possible, and regenerate natural systems – can be turned into business opportunities.

Case 1: LKAB’s ReeMAP project & Circular Industrial Park

The ReeMAP project spearheaded by LKAB, a Swedish mining company, represents an exciting endeavor in the sustainable extraction of critical raw materials from mining by-products.

As part of its ambition to achieve zero carbon dioxide emissions from all processes and products produced at their sites by the year 2045, LKAB has developed, tested, and piloted a new process to recover and upgrade mine waste from iron ore production.

Apatite-rich tailings, sourced from LKAB’s Kiruna and Gällivare/Malmberget mines, serve as the raw material for this sustainable process to recover phosphorus, rare earth elements (REEs), fluorine, and gypsum by-products in a fossil-free process.

As the production at pilot scale was successful, LKAB is now planning the establishment of a Circular Industrial Park in Luleå, which is to be operational in 2027 and should create more than 500 jobs.

This Circular Industrial Park is to become a centre for the chemical engineering industry in northern Sweden, where the materials provided through LKAB’s ReeMAP project are further processed into downstream products. 

What’s more, LKAB is currently exploring and developing a new deposit, Per Geijer, which contains up to eight times more phosphorus compared to the orebodies currently mined by the company.

This significant discovery in Kiruna, Sweden, could play a role in enhancing Europe’s self-sufficiency in critical raw materials, specifically phosphorus and REEs. Phosphorus is an indispensable nutrient for mineral fertilizers essential to global agriculture, and Europe heavily relies on phosphorus imports, particularly from Russia.

LKAB’s circular extraction approach seeks to eliminate Europe’s dependency on Russian phosphorus imports, thereby bolstering food production and security.

The ReeMAP project is an exciting example of how applying circular thinking can make previously hidden opportunities visible and create new business opportunities, numerous jobs, and even contribute to resource self-sufficiency in a way that was previously unimaginable.

For LKAB, it means facing the most profound transformation in the company’s 130-year history, and for Sweden this could imply the biggest investment ever made in the country.

Case 2: Anglo American’s ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’ initiative

Anglo American’s platinum group metal (PGMs) business in South Africa started off at the other end of the value chain when it embarked on an ambitious project aimed at embracing CE principles. The aim was to reduce waste from end products and turn it into a resource through reusing, redesigning, sharing, repairing, refurbishing, re-manufacturing and recycling materials.

This initiative culminated in the ‘Zero Waste to Landfill’ project, which included an effort to map all waste streams, categorising them for reduction, re-use, or recycling, and setting specific strategies and targets to achieve zero waste sent to landfill.

The results were remarkable. Compared to a 2013 baseline, a 99.9% reduction in waste to landfill was achieved in 2021, not only significantly reducing the environmental impact but also resulting in a substantial reduction in CO2 equivalent emissions, with over 503,053 tonnes saved.

This shift in approach marked a departure from viewing waste as a mere cost and liability, which shows how circular principles can help shift our mindset and thereby open new business opportunities.

Social value was created through active employee engagement, which played a pivotal role in the success of the project, with waste champions appointed at each site to identify opportunities for waste management improvements and conduct facility audits.

Moreover, the initiative had positive ripple effects on the community, such as supplying materials for local businesses, donating bicycles to facilitate recyclables collection, creating job opportunities, and fostering waste awareness through community-based campaigns.

Anglo American’s commitment to the ongoing implementation of its sustainable waste programme underscores its dedication to responsible mining practices and environmental stewardship, ensuring a sustainable environment for future generations.

Anglo American’s PGMs business has committed to the ongoing implementation of its sustainable waste programme, with a focus on stakeholder engagement and community waste management projects to ensure a sustainable environment for future generations.

Five business models and three disruptive technologies that can be used to create circular businesses. Source: CEO guide to circular economy

Case 3: Regenx Tech – pioneering circular precious metals recovery

Tech company, Regenx Tech, previously known as Mineworx, has embarked on a mission to redefine the precious metals recovery landscape by recovering platinum and palladium from discarded diesel catalytic converters in a clean and sustainable manner.

After proving its proprietary and clean recovery technology, the company has built a world-class precious metals recovery plant in Tennessee, U.S. The ramp up to full scale commercial production began just weeks ago in September 2023.

The value proposition is clear: over 24 million diesel catalytic converters are retired annually, with only 30% being reprocessed and the rest discarded in landfills. Even with the transition to electric cars, the diesel catalytic converter market is expected to grow significantly, from US$ 24.7 billion in 2017 to US$ 39.3 billion in 2025.

With its innovative technology, the company can recover up to 90% of valuable metals from the converters, with yields for palladium and platinum as high as 3,000g/t. Conventional methods currently used are only able to recover 30% of palladium. This also mitigates a major environmental hazard by diverting millions of catalytic converters from landfill.

An astonishing US$ $21.2 billion per year of precious metals from retired catalytic converters are currently untapped, providing the chance to generate around US$100 million in revenue annually. Regenx Tech envisions a future with multiple recovery plants worldwide.

By collaborating with Davis Recycling, a leading US catalytic converter recycling company, the company is establishing a circular supply chain that ensures a consistent flow of retired converters, creating a closed-loop system.

In summary, Regenx Tech seems well-positioned to revolutionise the precious metals recovery sector by addressing supply challenges, developing efficient recovery technologies, and establishing a strong supply chain by embracing circular principles from the onset. 

Closing the loops: moving forward with circular principles

These use cases show how mining companies and other market players have turned liabilities into opportunities, creating profitable businesses and social value while rethinking conventional ‘take-make-waste’ linear business models to close material loops.

What is clear, though, is that true circularity in mining necessitates a systemic reconfiguration.

It’s encouraging to see companies embracing this challenge and getting rewarded with new profitable business opportunities that help to make the world cleaner and better, one bold step and one transformative idea at a time.

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