Digging Deeper

Article by Glen Corder FIChemE and Artem Golev

Glen Corder and Artem Golev look at the mining industry’s role in a circular economy

HOW does the mining industry fit into the emerging new paradigm of the circular economy? After all, it is a sector with a business model that relies on the extraction and processing of finite minerals and metals resources. While waste minimisation can help reduce costs and prevent environmental and social legacy issues in either the near or long term, the traditional view of the mining sector is that it has a ‘take-make-dispose’, or linear economy, approach to its working practices. In trying to answer this question, it is worthwhile to think about how the circular economy is defined and where it is making impact.

At a global level

While there are several definitions of the circular economy, one commonly-accepted definition is an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design and aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times as well as accelerating the transition from a conventional linear economy. Supporting this definition is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s three key principles for advancing the circular economy: design out waste and pollution; keep products and materials in use; and regenerate natural systems. This will, it suggests, promote gradual decoupling of economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. In doing so, economic, natural, and social capital will be built through the circular model1.

In Europe there has been a substantive drive towards developing a circular economy, driven to a degree by a concern of security of supply of raw materials. China’s circular economy initiative is effectively a sustainable consumption and production programme. It utilises approaches in cleaner production, industrial ecology, and life cycle management to balance the demands of maintaining rapid economic growth with enhancing environmental quality and continuing social progress. In Australia, state governments have created circular economy initiatives with an emphasis on waste management and recycling in response to both global and national challenges.

An indication of the advancement of the concept is the relatively recent development by the British Standards Institution (BSI) of the first circular economy standard, BS 8001:2017. It provides a practical framework and guidance for organisations implementing the principles of the circular economy2. Furthermore, the European Commission is also undertaking a range of actions to support the move to a more circular economy, including specific actions for critical raw materials such as platinum group metals, rare earth elements, cobalt, coking coal, and magnesium. To progress this initiative, a report has been released on key data sources, best practices and options for further circular economy action at an EU level for raw materials3.

Circular economy in practice

Article By

Glen Corder FIChemE

Principal Research Fellow, Sustainable Minerals at The University of Queensland

Artem Golev

Research Fellow, Sustainable Minerals at The University of Queensland

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