The role of mining and metals in accelerating a truly circular economy
We need to accelerate efforts to deliver a just energy transition that gets us to net zero sooner, while also allowing for the continued development of countries around the world. The necessary journey has already started but we need to go further, faster.
By Christian Spano, Director of Innovation, ICMM.
Sometimes I think about the world my family will live in in 2040 and ask myself, ‘what does a just world look like’? My answer is continuously evolving, but at its essence, my hope is that it’s a place where my two children can see all parts of society thriving – with governments and business all over the world collaborating in strategic ways with communities to add value to people and the planet.
As part of this, my children should have no doubt that the materials in all of the products they’re using day-to-day are valuable and durable, and not merely there to be consumed and thrown away. They should also have no doubt that the manufacturing of these products creates zero emissions or waste, from the mine site through to the shop floor.
This vision for 2040 is not a given, it depends on technological advancements, increasing investments from companies in renewable energy and regenerating land and forests to trap carbon and improve nature, and a variety of new circular sectors dealing with the likes of battery management for zero carbon electric vehicles. And it also depends on business stepping up to take a leading role in collaboration and innovation that will get us there – for which I’ve seen some very promising progress already from ICMM members.
I fundamentally believe that the mining and metals industry has an important role to play in making this exciting vision a reality by supporting mineral rich countries in making their mines circular sources of development and environmental value. And by working with markets to put the conditions in place so that materials can be recovered at any time at scale. In this framing, the focus of the circular economy shifts from waste, to producing and recovering resource value.
This may be counterintuitive to some because of mining's past, and some of its present, but it is the purest route for changing the focus of circular economy from waste to value.
A Truly Circular Economy Must Be Implemented ‘From the Ground Up’
There is no getting away from mining and metals being at the heart of a just energy transition — they are what make the energy and transport systems of the future possible. The clean energy transition will massively increase demand for metals and minerals in coming years. Reaching net zero by 2050 will require an estimated 3 billion tonnes of metal, as well as significant investments of roughly US$9.2 trillion each year.
Why this focus on metals? Demand for metals isn’t limited to enabling the energy transition. They are also needed for consumer electronics, and they possess properties essential for the ongoing development of many countries including the construction of cities and towns, communications, water and energy supply, and transport. They are also durable materials, which can often be recovered indefinitely depending on how they are designed for recovery, and used and combined in products.
Process and Product Circularity in Parallel
The circular economy is often seen as focused on reducing the input of raw materials to reduce waste. And certainly, the recovery of materials at the ‘end of product life’ is going to be key to incrementally meet demand for metals. Yet recycling rates for many metals remain low, with far too much ending up as waste. Even for those metals with high recycling rates such as steel and aluminium, recycling remains a limited source in the next decade or so. Thinking back to my vision for my children in 2040 – centred around the durability of materials and products – much more needs to be done to improve these rates going forward.
Many mining and metals companies are already in the metals recycling space and are starting to think about material sourcing in different ways. Glencore, Hydro and JX Nippon, to name just a few, all process secondary materials through their smelters and refiners, bringing metals back into the value chain rather than allowing them to become waste.
However, recycling alone will not be enough for us to meet demand. Despite the importance of recycling in helping realise the durability of metals, we need to better understand how it risks establishing an unjust transition, like any model that eliminates primary sources of materials. This is because models that are focussed solely on secondary material use are largely centred in the largest markets, while developing countries rely heavily on the mining and metals sector for their social and economic progress.
The journey towards making mining a circular process is already underway and it has a great potential to drive growth and a positive contribution to both people and the planet. We need to establish a systemic approach to the circular economy very strategically and deliberately that builds on that, rather than stops it in its tracks.
And we need to do so urgently, as I would hate to see a future in 2040, where the largest markets in the global north have become completely circular, but developing resource-rich countries have been kicked down the ladder once again.
A Vision Based on Responsibly Produced Materials
With the pressing need for cleaner energy, metals and minerals are vital for the just transition and for the circular economy to reach scale much faster – but in doing so, it is critical that they are produced responsibly. Given the sheer volume of metals that we will need, we must focus on designing the mining process in a circular manner so that land is productive indefinitely, and designing for the recovery of metals, so that they can be recovered again and again.
There is much that is being learned from circularity to improve the mining process. ICMM members are already minimising energy use and securing renewable energy to power electricity at their sites, reducing waste, and reusing water or even aiming to develop waterless mines in water-scarce areas.
We can turn mine waste into valuable resources too. We can find ways to make by-products from industrial processing, like sulphur or excess heat, into valuable products for other industries, like sulphuric acid or heating for buildings – like Boliden is doing in Finland. Vale is innovating how it processes materials to recover a new product – silica – from sand, which also has the benefit of reducing waste and tailings while adding value to host governments, communities and its operations (read more here).
I’ve been able to see first-hand, that we increasingly have the ability to design new mines and retrofit old ones to enhance the local ecosystem even when the mining activity ends, building resilience within communities so that they have the skills needed to move into other economic activities, and leaving land which has been regenerated for nature or else social or economic uses.
Ultimately, I’m very excited about the idea that mining can become just one circle in the infinite lifetime of land.