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How the circular economy can change the world

The world’s economies have not always operated in the best interests of the environment, but today we have the power to change this, putting the natural world at the forefront of business decisions.

Humanity’s traditional paradigm of extraction, production and disposal has been a problem for many years. It is, simply put, unsustainable: playing a huge role in the ongoing depletion of our natural resources.

The solution is straightforward in theory but not necessarily easy to achieve in practice. It goes beyond mere end-of-life product recycling, requiring the development of ‘circular’ products that are designed to last and create less waste during their production. 

It is a mindset shift that holds the potential to solve challenges like material scarcity and waste management, with the greater benefit of a positive and measurable influence on nature and biodiversity. 

ICMM members are embracing the challenge and opportunities of a circular economy at both process and product levels, as they transition to more sustainable supply chains:

  • Process circularity emphasises making mining and metals processing more circular, incorporating practices like land remediation, water reuse and transforming waste. 

  • Product circularity focuses on treating metals as durable materials to prevent them from becoming waste, which maximises their value and minimises environmental impact.

Bridging Nature and Circular Economy

Regeneration Enterprises, developed by partners Rio Tinto and NGO RESOLVE, transforms the mining industry by repurposing waste from legacy mine sites into a valuable resource. Regeneration creates a circular and sustainable strategy by transforming waste materials into revenue that is reinvested in habitat restoration. This innovative approach benefits both the environment and local communities by demonstrating a commitment to healing historical impacts. Beyond resource extraction, Regeneration broadens its impact by providing biodiversity and carbon credits through land rehabilitation, fostering collaboration with stakeholders from diverse backgrounds.

As noted by Rohitesh Dhawan, CEO of ICMM, Regeneration's groundbreaking approach “introduces a social enterprise model to address the crucial challenge of responsible mine closure.” Rio Tinto's $2 million equity investment in Regeneration underscores the commitment to exploring and supporting eco-friendly solutions. This signifies the critical role collaboration and innovation play in connecting the circular economy and nature, and it also represents a shared responsibility for a more sustainable future. 

Battery to Battery Recycling, Japan 

As the electric vehicle market grows, so does the demand for vital materials like nickel, cobalt, and lithium. Sumitomo Metal Mining addresses this by leading the recovery and reuse of copper and nickel found in lithium-ion secondary batteries (LIBs). This involves an innovative method that combines copper and nickel smelting and refining, a first in Japan, and Sumitomo's lithium recovery technology is a global first. This practice prevents batteries ending up in landfill that have negative effects to the local environment and aligns with the idea of a circular and eco-friendly industry. 

Repurposing mine tailings, Brazil

Vale is transforming mine tailings in Brazil into sand for civil construction with 100% legal origin, high silica content and low iron content, as well as high chemical and granulometric uniformity. The sand has been produced at the Brucutu mine in Minas Gerais since 2021, reducing the amount of tailings that are disposed of in dams and piles. Last year, Vale created a company called Agera for trading and distribution of sand. Around 1.7 million tons of Vale's Sustainable Sand have been allocated to the civil construction sector and road paving projects.

The creation of the sand business also helps to mitigate another environmental issue. The extraction of natural sand from riverbeds often exceeds the rate of natural replenishment and can cause irreversible environmental impacts. With the production of Vale’s sand, it is possible to carry out 100 per cent circular extraction, transforming a material that would otherwise be discarded into various products for the benefit of society, without compromising biodiversity.

Vale has followed the sand project with the launch of the Gelado Project in Carajás in 2023. The company has been storing iron ore mine tailings for the last 37 years but as part of this new programme, they are now extracting high-grade material from the tailings which is made into pellets for steelmaking. The project uses fully electric dredges and pumps, which are powered by renewable sources.

Regional Circular Economy, Finland 

Boliden's Kokkola Industrial Park (KIP) in Finland showcases a circular economy that has positive impacts for local communities. Boliden sends excess heat and chemicals from their zinc smelter to generate energy for homes and businesses, making it a global leader in energy efficiency and significantly reducing carbon emissions. The reuse of by-products, such as sulphuric acid, aligns with circular economy principles, where waste is transformed into valuable resources. Boliden's initiatives at KIP showcase a sustainable approach, highlighting the transformation of waste into useful resources within a well-connected industrial ecosystem. 

Innovation, circularity and integrated spatial planning are vital to meeting climate and development goals whilst protecting and restoring nature. ICMM’s new Nature Position Statement drives forward the work of the ICMM membership on circularity that in 2024 will focus on supporting ICMM members and the wider industry with building circular concepts into their business and operations.