Mining’s carbon footprint is significant, with 44% of all CO2 emissions from industry stemming from the production of steel and non-metallic mineral products. But because of the vast amount of minerals required for the transition to cleaner energy, the world is relying on mining to expand.
How far mining companies go in implementing a circular approach will determine their rate of carbon emissions and play a pivotal role in whether temperatures stay below 2 degrees – crucial to mitigating the worst impacts of global warming.
To cut emissions and generate value at every step of a mine’s lifecycle, mining should shift from a wasteful, linear model to a “cradle-to-cradle” perspective. Incorporating the principles of the circular economy right from the start, at the conception phase of a mine, will allow a business to reap the most benefits. What equipment will be used, how waste can generate value, where the company will collaborate with other industries, and what will happen to the mine after its closure, should all be planned out with a circular lens.
This blog looks at the steps mining companies can take to enter the circular economy, transforming their traditional business model to both decarbonize their operations and build sustainable business practices.
A new life for old equipment
In a circular economy, the technical equipment and infrastructure used throughout the mining process should last as long as possible, even beyond their use in the mine. Currently, the typical approach is to dispose of machinery when the mine closes, but valuable materials can be salvaged from this equipment that could be of use to another industry.
Companies should think outside the box about the potential utility of defunct equipment – as well as being sold on or recycled, equipment can be upcycled (made into something new) or downcycled (made into low quality but useful materials). While these practices may not be financially beneficial for the mining company itself, they can strengthen ties with other businesses within the local community as well as waste management services.
To take it a step further, the materials industry can reimagine traditional ideas around equipment ownership by renting where possible. Offerings of ‘parts as a service’ – where a provider maintains the necessary equipment and handles its refurbishment or recycling afterwards – can be both more efficient and help reduce waste.
As an example of this in practice, machinery manufacturer Caterpillar plans for its products to be remanufactured multiple times. It designs machinery with removable parts that can be replaced, allowing them to be easily reinstated to as-new quality.
Don’t scrap waste
In a circular economy, waste is designed out – not just reduced. Recycling water and switching to clean electric mining are effective first steps towards achieving this at the mine site. New techniques that selectively target ore also show promise for reducing the estimated 100 gigatonnes a year of mining waste, while minimising energy consumption.
But in a truly circular economy, excess materials are seen as potential sources of value, not as waste. This means thinking of creative and innovative uses for both waste material and energy. Examples of this could include slags being used in road construction and concrete, waste rock in landscaping, and water being diverted to local communities as drinking water. There are also environmental benefits – waste rock can stop contaminants being released into the environment, and mine tailings can re-absorb carbon.
Mining companies can also investigate industrial symbiosis – which entails partnering with other mine operators in the area, as well as other businesses not in the mining industry. This involves collaboration on how the materials ‘wasted’ by these separate industries can be used by one another, and exploring how traditionally separate companies can work together to their mutual benefit. By viewing resources as something to be shared in order to harness their full potential, the mining industry can eliminate waste and mitigate significant ESG risk.
Recovering minerals and metals
Materials are becoming harder and more expensive to extract. But metals are both durable and infinitely recyclable, while the process of recycling uses far less energy than extracting virgin metal. The climate change impacts of recycling steel, for example, are between 10 and 38% of that of its initial production.
Mining companies should strive to play an active role in the recovery of materials in order to extend their lifespan. The ‘urban mine’ of electronic waste contains valuable minerals such as copper, silver, and gold, and other rare elements – it’s possible to extract more gold from a tonne of smartphones than a tonne of ore. In Japan, the metal from waste electronics was used to make 5,000 Olympic medals for the games in Tokyo.
Partnering with other mineral producers – so that, for example, copper producers recover other metals like gold and silver – can also help eliminate waste in mining as well as integrating both producers more firmly within the circular economy.
Regenerating land after mining
The third foundation of the circular economy is regenerating natural ecosystems. Mining degrades land over time, and mining companies should have a clear picture during the concept phase of how the site will be regenerated post operations. The mine site should be looked at as a source of possibility and for what it can offer the local community, this doesn’t have to wait until the end of operational life.
Around the world, there are examples to take inspiration from, where decommissioned mines have been turned into spots for tourism, sports, and national parks. Meanwhile, to help further global sustainability goals, mines can be given over for sustainable agriculture, enabling the community to produce food while generating jobs and economic prosperity in the process. Mine sites are also ideally placed for solar and wind energy infrastructure, delivering clean energy for the region.
When not repurposed for human activity, rewilding should be encouraged on the mine so that nature can take its course and wildlife can thrive. This will help restore the biodiversity that may have been impacted due to the mining activity and enable the capture of carbon.
The mining industry needs to rapidly decarbonise, and making changes in these above areas will go a long way towards doing so. Going circular can help companies eliminate their emissions, position themselves as socially responsible businesses, and create long-term value. The benefits for businesses that can be obtained through shifting to a circular model will be outlined in the next article.