Mining and the circular economy – debunking the myths
First things first, while “circular” and “green” are often used interchangeably, it is important to distinguish between them. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) defines a green economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” A circular economy entails the recycling and reuse of materials and components, combined with the utilisation of sustainable inputs, such as renewable energy. While mining, rightfully so, has been perceived as relatively linear from a value chain perspective, a number of sector players have made deliberate efforts to capitalise on the benefits of a circular economy. Despite this, there are misconceptions surrounding mining companies and the role they play…
- Decarbonisation means less minerals and metals
As reiterated at the recent 2022 African Mining Indaba, guiding the world to a low-carbon future will actually require more minerals and metals rather than less. Alarmingly, sector players anticipate a significant production deficit between 2030 and 2040 but the fact remains that a steady supply of resources will be needed to achieve net-zero goals. Pertinent examples include metals that contribute to alternative and greener energy sources, such as battery metals, and platinum group metals (PGMs), which underpin highly-sought after hydrogen fuel cell technology.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the geopolitical shift to be less reliant on Russian commodities, does present key green opportunities for South Africa, the current supplier of 80% and 40% of the globe’s platinum and palladium, respectively. Going forward, mining companies will need to leverage strategic supply gaps and be selective in who they supply to, if they are to guarantee the sustainability of future end-products.
- There aren’t any new opportunities to leverage between supply networks
As one of the globe’s biggest generators of waste, sector players are actually well-positioned to reimagine and redesign the way they generate and capture economic value along their supply chains. While waste rock can be used in the construction of roads, and sludge from acid rock drainage treatment can be sold commercially for use in pigments, there are potentially many more ways waste can be repurposed: the recycling and reuse of vehicle parts and other bi-products, and the rehabilitation of mines into viable renewable energy or agricultural sites. Visibility and collaboration along supply networks will be essential to ensuring that all value is adequately extracted downstream.
- Mines will always need large amounts of water to operate
An obvious area where mines can contribute to a feasible circular economy is the efficient use of natural resources such as water. According to the African Circular Economy Alliance ,mining is the second-largest user of water in South Africa, after agriculture. But… what if little to no water was required to extract resources? While this seems almost impossible, the solution could be the creation of smart mines, where sustainability is built into the initial stages of the overall design process. In addition, improvement in water treatment technologies and the use of renewables, particularly solar for electrolysis, will help to create hydrogen for use on mines by splitting water, thus releasing oxygen instead of carbon-based emissions.
Ultimately, mining does possess many facets that can drive circular economy thinking; added to this, is rising investor and consumer expectations and increasing regulatory pressures. By fully embracing these principles the mining sector can successfully build a resilient system that is good for business, stakeholders and the environment.
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