A brief introduction to the circular economy
In our current linear economy, materials are extracted, used, and disposed. We’re increasingly witnessing the detrimental effects of this on our climate, as rising emissions from extraction and production lead to extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, and degraded soil conditions.
When we settle for making slight improvements in the amount of waste we produce, we’re simply prolonging the inevitable environmental damage caused by industrial activity. But a circular economy totally upends this ‘take-make-waste’ approach to natural resources. Instead of wasting less, or polluting less, it demands that we change the underlying conditions that create waste in the first place. System change is needed to create a sustainable future. Engineering is critical to this transition, designing for sustainability and circular solutions need to be embedded as part of the concept phase.
In 2014, the United Nations stressed “the urgency for decoupling escalating resource use and environmental degradation from economic growth”. The circular economy is how we can achieve this in a way that benefits us all – the time is now to rethink our systems and supply chains so that waste is designed out.
As described by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, the circular economy has three core principles:
1. Eliminate waste and pollution
In the linear economy, energy intensive processes are used to turn raw materials into consumer products, which at the end of their lifespan are often incinerated or sent to landfill. Waste is built into many items, and there is generally no way to effectively recycle them that reinstates them to their prior condition. This is a question of design, but we can do things differently by building in longevity and planned recovery of materials.
2. Circulate products and materials at their highest value
Products should be kept in use and retain their value as long as possible, either performing their intended function or reverted to raw materials. This can be achieved either technologically – by reuse, repair, and recycling – or biologically – where products are returned to the earth through compost. How materials will be recovered from products at the end of their lifespan must be considered at their inception.
3. Regenerate nature
Farming, mining, manufacturing and other industrial activities often take an extractive approach to nature with detrimental effects, but this doesn’t need to be the case. It’s possible, for example, to grow food in a way that regenerates soil’s natural balance so that carbon is stored rather than emitted into the atmosphere. A circular approach entails preserving nature, and allows land to return to its natural, biodiverse state once industrial work is completed.
Why we need a circular economy
Consumption is on the rise as the world’s middle class expands, with demand for resources expected to reach 130 billion tons by 2050. Our access to the raw commodities that are needed to fill this gap is limited, and they must be carefully managed. At the same time, our current production processes are contributing to rising global emissions and rapid biodiversity loss, while only 8.6% of raw materials are ever reused.
Recycling and a harm reduction approach to waste management have not, and will not, stave off catastrophic climate collapse. But implementing a circular economy presents a transformational opportunity to drive down emissions in order to keep temperatures below the 2 degrees set out in the Paris Agreement. Financial incentives also abound, with estimations that the circular economy can unlock trillions in market potential.
Action is needed now, and mining has the potential to emerge as a key player in the circular economy.
Mining is well placed for a circular revolution
Demand for clean energy is rising amid recognition of its critical role in achieving net zero targets and avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Key technologies such as electric vehicles and power grids rely on minerals such as copper, lithium, nickel, and cobalt. The mining industry must be able to meet this need – which could increase six times by 2040 – ensuring these minerals are available to hasten the transition to clean energy.
However, the mining industry itself is responsible for between 4-7% of greenhouse gases globally. Stemming the industry’s emissions and facilitating sustainable growth is crucial to ensuring none of the benefits of renewables are cancelled out. Implementing circular solutions in mining would help to decarbonize the industry while adding value far beyond the immediate environmental benefits.
Because minerals and metals are recoverable, durable, recyclable, and adaptable, mining is ideally placed to harness the potential of the circular economy. As it stands, many rare minerals are lost, for example in the 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste that are disposed every year. Both industry and consumers will need to shift their mindset, and it can start here.
There are already successful examples of the circular economy in mining, such as reprocessing tailings materials to extract residual minerals. The industry can both seize on these precedents and move beyond them, to new means of innovation and cross-industry collaboration. In future articles, I’ll explore exactly how the industry can achieve this. But there is a pivotal opportunity here for a circular economy to ensure mining creates value rather than just simply minimising harm. This moment calls for transformation, not mitigation.
Circular mining in Australia
Implementing circular approaches to mining in Australia would have many benefits, including attracting investment, creating jobs, and encouraging further developments in much-needed clean energy. For example, uptake of electric vehicles in Australia lags behind the rest of the world, so a mining industry that is equipped to meet the surging demand in minerals with a forward-looking, sustainable approach is crucial. The opportunity to manufacture either green steel or batteries locally within Australia can create significant shared value for stakeholders.
Some Australian companies are already trialling the reuse of mineral processing wastes for other purposes, such as industrial land development and road construction. These small but commendable steps hint at a much bigger picture.
The effects of climate change are already demonstrating the interconnectedness of everything around us, and that applies to industry too. By collaborating with other sectors in creative and innovative ways to harness the circular economy’s potential, Australia’s mining industry can reap benefits that aren’t possible when we constrain ourselves to a linear approach.
If you would like to know more
At Evolveable Consulting, we assist businesses in identifying circular solutions and strategies to reshape their business. You can learn more about our services or book a consultation directly with us.