A growing awareness of the effects of climate change, the gradual depletion of non-renewable energy sources and the pressure on big corporates to meet their ESG targets has driven a shift to decarbonisation and the adoption of renewable energy sources.

Although "green" sources of energy are widely regarded as the solution to the world's climate crisis, the increasing demand that green technologies (such as batteries and solar panels) create for vital minerals and metals (such as cobalt, lithium and nickel) cannot be ignored. To alleviate this anticipated increase in demand, the mining industry is exploring the implementation of strategies which support a circular approach to mining operations.

Circularity to drive sustainability in mining

Traditionally, mining operations have followed the linear "take-make-dispose" industrial model, which involves:

  • digging up ore;
  • processing minerals and metals;
  • producing the final product; and
  • disposing of any waste.

In the age of sustainability and ESG, the mining industry will be required to explore different approaches to resource and waste use in order to meet the environmental responsibility and social performance obligations placed on mining companies by their shareholders, investors, the public and policymakers. Circularity could assist mining companies in meeting these environmental and social requirements.

By introducing a circular model into mining productions, value is generated from normally wasteful processes. The ore will still be mined and processed, but an emphasis is placed on processing the waste created in order to create by-products. These by-products would then be used by the mining industry itself or by other industries. For example, cobalt can be found in copper tailings or carbon emitted by mining production can be captured for use in the production of methanol or other e-fuels. These by-products may also be upcycled into new materials or products. This would include upcycling mining waste to be used as a soil additive or for road construction.

The circular economic model is founded on a "take-make-use-recycle/reuse" approach. Since many metals can be utilised in a circular manner, metals can be recycled indefinitely without losing their properties, thus making the transition towards a circular model a more sustainable approach. A circular economic model requires mining companies to place value on all the materials they may win whilst extracting their target commodity, by designing out waste and instead regarding all materials as valuables.

This recycle or reuse model extends beyond mining waste and tailings to end-of-life products such as scrap steel, demolition waste and electronic waste. By focusing on "mining" above-ground resources, instead of extracting virgin resources, mining companies may reduce their carbon footprint and decrease costs.

One example would be the U.S. aluminium industry, where more than 40% of the country's aluminium supply is produced by way of recycling and melting aluminium scrap to make new aluminium products. Similarly, the recycling of rare earth metals, such as those used in electric vehicle batteries, could become more prevalent and profitable in future.

Another aspect of the circular economy is the prioritisation of renewable inputs and the optimisation of resource efficiency. This may include introducing renewable energy sources into mining operations, such as using green electricity and hydrogen to power electric arc furnaces and to replace coking coal.

A circular business model not only allows mining companies to meet ESG credentials and requirements that have a positive impact on brand reputation, but also serves as a source of competitive advantage, and may create jobs and localisation opportunities. Strategies founded on the circular economy have been introduced by big players, such as Anglo American, which has introduced the FutureSmart MiningTM programme. This programme addresses legacy challenges by implementing clean-ups of its old or closed tailings facilities whilst extracting valuable residual metals and minerals.

Incentivising circular models of mineral production

Moving towards circularity may require collaboration and incentivisation from government regulators and legislators. This would include the development of regulatory frameworks based on circularity principles, as well as the development of standards and specifications which do not only regulate traditional products of mining operations but also by-products which may previously have been regarded as waste. Policies could also be implemented to incentivise investments into companies which adopt a circular economy model through tax and fiscal incentives.

Policymakers should focus on increasing public awareness of the circular economy (since the concept extends beyond the mining sector), the introduction of electronic waste collection programs to recover metals from electronic waste, and driving research and development into waste management, mineral recoveries in lower grade ores and upcycling or recycling technology.

A commitment to circularity may also increasingly become an essential criteria for attracting foreign investment from investors who need to invest in line with ESG considerations. By implementing the required support structures and guiding frameworks that place a circular economy model in the centre of the mining industry (and ancillary industries) African countries would also be attracting foreign direct investment.

The introduction of the principles of the circular economy, particularly in the African mining sector, would further serve to add more value to the sector and the natural resources on the continent, by rethinking waste as a commodity. As a result, the continent's resources – although still abundant, for the time being – would not be squandered or unnecessarily depleted by the "take-use-dispose" linear model approach. By doing so, the African continent would ensure the sustainable extraction of its natural resources and create various ancillary industries relating to waste management, extraction and repurposing.

Reviewed by Wolf Wohlers, an Executive at ENSafrica | Namibia.

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