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What is the circular economy?

Circular economy is a global imperative for a truly sustainable economy, and the mining and metals sector has a critical role to play.

The circular economy (as championed by influential organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum) rejects the approach of traditional manufacturing (wherein goods or products are made, used and then disposed of) in favour of a more efficient, environmentally sound and sustainable way of thinking that focuses on the careful management of resources.

In the circular economy, products are designed for high performance and durability (rather than inbuilt obsolescence) and the use of raw materials is optimised – including the intelligent re-use of any waste products created during the manufacturing process.

At the end of a product’s life cycle, the resources used to create it are, where possible, recovered, recycled or repurposed, creating a responsible, restorative and regenerative cycle that designs out unnecessary waste.

How does this apply to mining and metals?

The cyclical approach to manufacturing and resource management is particularly well suited to the mining and metals industry.

On the whole, metals are infinitely recyclable, while their inherent durability, strength and anti-corrosive properties help to enhance the longevity of products in which they’re used. The high value of many metals and minerals also incentivises the recovery of such materials at the end of a product’s life cycle. Hence there are many methods in place to facilitate their re-use and recycling. Some smelting sites already recover metals such as copper from electric and electronic waste .

The sites of mining operations also have scope to adopt a circular approach to business. As well as considering the environmental and societal impact of their operations, mining companies can, and do, take steps to minimise negative effects, share best practice and reduce waste.

Repurposing ‘waste’ products

Mining as an industry creates much in the way of waste – from rock and emissions to water treatment sludge and mine water – which can be re-used, either within the production chain or repurposed elsewhere.

Other by-products of the mining sector can be re-used for making construction materials (eg bricks or cement), resins, glass and glazes, in agroforestry, or as part of the wastewater treatment process.

The smelting and refining stages of the minerals and metals life cycle have their own waste streams that need to be addressed, via the processing of residues and secondary metals. These are often used alongside primary concentrates (eg to produce metals with varying amounts of recycled content), while electronic scrap (from the ‘urban mine’ of discarded home appliances, computers, phones etc) can also be repurposed as part of this process.

How ICMM is improving performance

ICMM company members commit to optimise extraction and manufacturing processes, use resources and energy efficiently, and reduce waste. Reducing the mining and metals industry’s environmental footprint is the right thing to do and makes good economic sense. 

Effective materials stewardship encompasses both process and product. Process stewardship refers to activities undertaken by a company to ensure that its processes to explore, extract and refine minerals and metals are done in a way that minimises environmental impacts and health and safety risks. 

The mining and metals industry has developed innovative ways of reducing the waste from mining operations including:

  • Waste rock is used as backfill, landscaping material and as an aggregate in road construction. It can sometimes be used to produce cement and concrete.
  • Sludge from acid rock drainage treatment – which is high in iron – can be sold commercially for use in pigments.
  • Slag from smelter operations is often used for road construction and in concrete and cement.
  • Mine water is used for dust suppression and mineral processing, industrial and agricultural uses, and as a coolant.
  • Continued improvements to extraction and processing activities to minimise the use of water and reduce the production of tailings.

Product stewardship addresses the minerals and metals used in product systems by others and refers to activities that influence or guide their application to minimise environmental, health and safety risks and enable recovery, re-use or recycling, as appropriate. There are many innovative ways of recovering metal wastes from waste streams, and companies are routinely looking for ways to improve minor metals recovery from smelting operations, for example:

  • Electronic and electric waste are commonly used as a secondary source of metals by smelters.
  • Scrap metals from applications such as aluminium cans have a very high rate of recovery.