Exploring the role of mining and metals in the circular economy – an emerging concept that aims to draw the maximum value from materials.
Metals and minerals are the building blocks of a net zero future. There is no circular economy without these materials. But for their contribution to be considered truly circular we need to focus, both, on how they are produced and how they are used.
Beyond efforts to prevent metals becoming waste at the end of a product’s life, the industry needs to ensure that these materials are extracted and managed in the right way, so that we are facilitating a just transition to a circular economy that it is not built at the expense of producing countries and regions.
Issue at a Glance
- Population growth, social progress and the drive for clean energy technologies are increasing demand for minerals and metals. By 2040, it is estimated that there could be a 20-fold increase in demand for nickel and cobalt to meet the needs of an increasingly electrified world, and total copper demand is expected to double from 2020 to 2050. In order to meet this demand, we need to embrace a circular economy which involves increasing material productivity, eliminating waste and regenerating nature.
- Metals are the ideal durable material — in the right conditions they can be recycled almost indefinitely. We support the building of circular economies that balance the essentiality of durable materials, like metals, to enjoy multiple life cycle, with the need to manage the just transition of producing countries and regions so that they are not left behind.
- Process and product are tied together. For materials to be truly circular, both the way they are produced and used must be circular. In the case of mining, this means having operations that have a net positive contribution to the environment and society and working with the wider metals supply chain to promote the responsible use and recovery of metals after they enter markets.
- Circularity is not new in the mining and metals industry. The mining industry has been integrating circular principles at the site level for many years, in part to reduce the negative impacts of extraction but also because it makes good business sense. Reducing waste and tailings, optimising water usage, regenerating closed mine sites, recycling other waste such as tires and focussing on efficiency is already at the heart of strategy in the industry.
- But to become truly circular, we must innovate. By looking at both process and product circularity in tandem — mines can deliver value to communities and nature at site level, while the materials they produce become resources that can be used again and again. ICMM is focused on creating a collaborative space to ensure that the right conditions are in place to allow different types of circular strategies to be successful, including regulation, technology availability and market incentives. Through identifying areas for collaboration, we can support the move to a systematic approach to circularity across the global economy.
Collaborate for More Circular Operations
We work with our members and external stakeholders to promote responsible mining across the world which means ensuring mines have net zero emissions by 2050, zero waste and are designed to have a positive contribution to the environment, and societies feel they are better off during and after the mine’s life.
Understand Value and Mitigating Waste Streams
In a business-as-usual scenario, most electric vehicles, renewable energy infrastructure and batteries are likely to become future waves of waste, negatively impacting people and the planet. The industry needs to work collaboratively and engage across metals value chains to ensure that policy makers, product designers and finance providers recognise the inherent suitability of metals to a circular economy, and conditions are in place to prevent metal from becoming waste.
Create Conditions for Circular Business Models To Become the Norm
While there are examples from across the industry of innovative circular solutions, these remain relatively niche as we are still operating in a predominantly linear economy. We need to work with stakeholders including downstream customers, investors and policy makers to understand the global conditions which would be needed to allow the circular economy to become the norm as fast as possible.