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What does a circular economy look like… with multiple circles?

22 May 2023

It is universally acknowledged that we need to reach net zero within the next few decades if we are to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, and this means transitioning to renewable sources of energy.

By Bryony Clear Hill, Circular Economy lead, ICMM

With metals and minerals being core ingredients of all clean energy technologies, WEF predicts that we will need around 3 billion tons[1] of metal to attain net zero by 2050. A weight equivalent of 300,000 Eiffel Towers. Needless to say, this means that mining and metals need to be at the heart of a circular economy.

How Are We Thinking About the Circular Economy?

The circular economy has often been described as a single circle focused on materials already in the supply chain, thereby marginalising the input of virgin materials and associated output of waste. In this ’single circle’, circularity is often conflated with recycling. And while recycling of waste is undoubtedly a key tenet of a sustainable supply chain, it alone will not lead to sufficient volumes of materials required to meet demand.  

the industry is largely concentrated in certain parts of the world, including in many lower income countries where the industry may likely dominate GDP.

The single circle model also treats durable and consumable materials as if they are the same. Metals have the potential to be used and reused infinitely in systems primed for circularity, in contrast to many raw materials that are created for single or limited use only. This is problematic, as the potential of durable materials is misrepresented, meaning an enormous amount of value is potentially being lost to waste.  

Additionally, this thinking cannot lead to an inclusive, just transition. Although some degree of mining can be found in most countries, the industry is largely concentrated in certain parts of the world, including in many lower income countries where the industry may likely dominate GDP[2]. Current models of the circular economy that focus on eliminating primary materials are de facto closing the door to producing countries. To not risk leaving anyone behind, it is essential that we expand our understanding of the circular economy so that producing countries are better able to benefit, all the while allowing for greater collective contribution to the wellbeing of our planet.  

A Circular Economy Is Made Up of Multiple Circles

We therefore need to challenge our understanding of the circular economy so that it is inclusive of the full value chain of a product. That is, we need a model that encompasses both process circularity, which is inclusive of mining and metals processing, and product circularity, which then considers what happens once metals are in use.  

This way of looking at the circular economy, in effect, creates two interconnected circles. The first circle acknowledges the efforts required to make mining and metals processes more circular, such as land remediation, water reuse, valorisation of waste and so on, while the second circle focuses on ensuring that metal is treated as a durable material and never becomes waste.  

A circular economy comprising both Process and Product Circularity.

The Industry Must Unite Around a Vision for Circularity

There are many circular initiatives emerging across mining and metals, but these largely remain individual case studies of best practice, rather than scalable industry initiatives spanning companies, countries and regions. In part, this is because there’s a lack of a clear definition of success. Success, for example, may be defined by different groups as eliminating all waste, or reaching a set percentage of recycled content within products. It could also be thought of as eliminating the supply of primary materials.

This lack of a unified vision means that it is near impossible for companies to measure and track progress. One organisation may be able to do so, but this information will not be comparable across companies let alone industries. This is not to say that all companies need to take the same approach to circularity. It is likely in future that some will remain focussed mostly on primary mining, but doing so in a way which is regenerative, whilst others will increasingly focus on secondary supply and more innovative models for providing materials to customers. What is needed is a definition for circularity which allows the value in all these approaches to be recognised.

Policy Makers Can Enable or Hinder the Circular Economy

Policy and regulatory environments can make or break circularity. At present, different definitions of success are leading to a complex policy landscape that biases certain circular approaches. If success is seen by policy makers as increasing the use of recycled materials, policies are being designed in ways that could shut the door to primary materials, even if these have been produced in ways that potentially benefit people and the planet. At the same time, policies which make it harder to transport and use secondary metals may increase the volume of waste and the loss of value from the system.

There needs to be a coherent policy approach to the metals supply chain, which both incentivises the responsible production of required primary materials, and then ensures that these are able to be recovered and repurposed at the appropriate time.

The Transition to a Circular Economy Needs Investment

Reaching net zero by 2050 is expected to require annual investments of around US$9.2 trillion[3]. Within this is a need to ensure that adequate investment is made to develop inclusive circular business models that are sensitive to the challenges that exist around fluctuations in commodity prices. For example, re-mining tailings may be financially viable during times where commodity prices are high, but should they drop, the profit-making potential can be lost. As such companies may not be incentivised to develop these opportunities. Investors, therefore, have a huge role to play in incentivising circularity at scale.  
Likewise in most cases, one company alone is unlikely to create a scalable circular solution. Take the recycling of tires, which one company may undertake to retain access to certain key materials: while desirable, this action alone isn’t going to be sufficient to prevent significant volumes of waste being transferred to landfill as waste. However, if several companies in a region collaborate, this may make such a venture more impactful. Participation, support and investment from value chain partners and governments will also be necessary to enable the success of such regional schemes. 

So What Are the Next Steps?

Looking to the future, we see three potential scenarios which could play out; of which only one is desirable:

  1. The world prioritises recycling over the production of virgin, primary materials. This increases competition for resources between countries and industries, and concentrates resource potential in those economies best able to adapt, all the while compromising the building of adequate numbers of low carbon technologies required of all net zero targets.
  2.  We see a frenzy of mining to produce the volumes of materials required of all net zero technologies. But this uncompromising approach comes at the expense of people and the planet, as nature and development are marginalised in favour of “mining at any costs”.
  3. We responsibly increase the supply of new metals through mining processes that are based on circular principles. These are supplemented by the reuse, remanufacture or recycling of existing materials through mechanisms that value the durability of materials. These, when combined with sustainable consumption habits will allow us to reach net zero while continuing to maximise development potential in resource rich countries.

The only acceptable option is scenario 3; an outcome that is only going to be possible if we develop a clear vision for the circular economy that embraces the inherent value of mining and metals. This vision needs to be designed collaboratively, so that industry, policy makers, financial institutions and the wider metals supply chain can unite behind it.

At the World Circular Economy Forum 2022, held in Kigali, Rwanda, ICMM convened a roundtable comprising participants from civil society, industry, and think tanks. The question under discussion was ‘what is the role of circularity in ensuring that the energy transition is both successful and just?’. This paper brings together many themes which were discussed at this event, combined with ICMM’s own thinking in this space, to present an initial set of actions which we think are needed to build a circular economy at scale.


1. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/12/clean-energy-transition-mining-climate-change#:~:text=3%20billion%20tons%20of%20metal,in%20mining%20could%20be%20required

2. https://www.icmm.com/en-gb/research/social-performance/2022/role-of-mining-in-national-economies

3. https://www.mas.gov.sg/news/speeches/2022/what-does-it-take-to-get-to-net-zero-keynote-speech-by-mr-ravi-menon-managing-director-monetary-authority-of-singapore-at-the-economic-society-of-singapore-annual-dinner-2022-on-17-august-2022

4. https://ccsi.columbia.edu/circular-economy-mining-energy