Launching the circular economy in Australia
Australia is well-placed to take advantage of the environmental and economic benefits of the circular economy. The country is stepping up its waste management policies in other areas, such as banning the export of mixed plastic waste and allocating investment to increase its recycling capacity. It should take further steps towards implementing circular principles and supporting businesses who strive to do so in order to reap the potential benefits.
Mining accounts for around 10.4% of Australia’s GDP, and causes between 4-7% of global emissions. A circular economy can help the mining sector to stay competitive and attract green investment, while more broadly it can enable Australia to rapidly decarbonise and meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050.
There is a long way to go before the circular economy in Australia matures. In this article, I will outline some ways in which the country’s capacity for these innovative, sustainable approaches can be developed.
Industry-wide recognition is needed
For the circular economy to gain momentum in Australia, there must be a concerted effort to ensure businesses of all levels are aware of its potential for generating new sources of value. Leadership should aim to educate their staff of the impact and importance of going circular, and be open to hearing ideas from all levels of staff on how the company can improve.
Meanwhile, funding, personnel, and resources must be allocated for the shift to circularity – it can’t be simply tacked on to daily operations, as it will require serious commitment to rethink traditional business models.
I have outlined in earlier posts actions that businesses can take to harness the potential of the circular economy. In short, these are the following:
1. The sector must continually redefine ‘waste’ and rethink new purposes for materials.
2. Cross-sector collaboration is needed to maximise the lifespan of materials.
3. Rather than targeting one commodity, all potential sources of value should be considered when mining.
4. Regeneration and the potential social benefits should be a priority when planning the mine’s closure.
These practices will have immense economic and environmental benefits, and mean that value is generated at every step of the mine’s lifespan. Once the mining industry truly understands the rewards to be gained from entering the circular economy – and what is at stake from sitting this opportunity out – real change will follow.
Collaboration and sharing information is key
Collaboration is critical for a successful transition to the circular economy. Rather than working separately and in silos, companies both within the mining sector and beyond should share knowledge and practices. This will work towards their mutual benefit – by creating working groups and exchanging information across seemingly unlinked industries, new solutions and value chains can be uncovered and the development of new technology accelerated.
Information that can be reported on includes the kinds of materials available at different sites, what equipment and technology is on offer for others to make use of – either for sharing or at its end-of-life, the infrastructure in place, and demand for specific resources. Mining operators can also build a library of case studies of potential socially beneficial uses of a closed mine for others to draw on.
Digital transformation in the mining industry can also boost this pivotal sharing of information and unlock new opportunities for value creation. The sector collects vast amounts of data, and putting it to use can help operators identify where inefficiencies are occurring, opportunities for materials to be recovered and circulated, and where waste can be phased out.
Digital tools can also be useful to open discussion on the success of various technologies, share in-progress research, and map organisations who are enacting circular principles in order to connect sustainably-minded customers with service providers.
The government must keep pace with the circular economy
Australia’s government has a pivotal role to play in encouraging the uptake of circular principles within the mining industry. Without policy backing and the creation of innovative financial incentives, the circular economy’s momentum will falter.
Boost the circular economy with funding
The government should implement green procurement policies, while setting aside funding specifically for mines that commit to the principles of the circular economy. It should look at the financial impediments facing innovative circular extraction projects, to encourage and de-risk them where possible. Negative externalities – the costs to the environment that private companies are responsible for, but do not have to pay for – should be fully accounted for, levelling the playing field for companies that take the leap to going circular.
Policy is a powerful tool
Extending the lifespan of minerals for as long as possible is a central element of a circular approach to mining, and the government should examine the infrastructure it can put in place to allow minerals to be recovered from consumer products. Public education will be critical to the success of these initiatives.
The government should also promote private-public partnerships that enable knowledge to be shared across sectors so that circular policies that are enacted have the best chance of success. Meanwhile, industrial symbiosis – where ‘waste’ circulates between different sectors for mutual benefit – can be formalised to strengthen trust between various partners.
Finally, the government should create legible targets and standards around the circular economy for companies to aim for. These sector-specific objectives must enable companies to show tangible results – with mechanisms in place to ensure stakeholders are scrutinised and held accountable for shortfalls.
The time for action is now
The business case for the circular economy is clear, and as an industry, mining is in an ideal position to enable it at a large scale. To break free from the conventional ‘take-make-waste’ linear model and move towards an approach that is both economically and environmentally sustainable, action is needed from all levels of both the private and public sectors.
The circular economy is an innovative approach that requires new ways of thinking and bold, transformational change – the rewards for businesses that take this leap will be immense.
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.