A broader move to a circular economy model doesn’t mean mining is going to become obsolete any time soon, but it does mean that it will need to change to meet its demand.
In recent times, the idea of a circular economy has taken hold.
Whereas the current model can broadly be described as dig, use, discard — a circular model can be described as dig, use, re-use.
An idea which was once only discussed in obscure discussion papers presented at even more obscure academic conferences has started to break through.
For example, Adidas has been making shoes from recycled plastic found in oceans while it’s recently talked about launching the Futurecraft Loop — a shoe that people can hand back to the company once it wears out to receive a new pair of shoes.
Miners, who thrive in an economy based entirely on digging stuff, shipping it out, and then repeating the process — are faced with an almost existential threat.
If this whole ‘circular economy’ thing catches on, do miners have the place they once did?
“I don’t think they necessarily have to panic,” Associate Professor Glen Corder from The University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute told Star Investing.
“But I do think a shift to a circular economy, or at least a more circular economy, will force them to rethink some of their practices.”
He pointed to research showing that while so far we’ve done a relatively good job of recycling aluminium for example — we have plenty more to do.
“It’s still going to take 50 years before we’ll get more metal out of recycled aluminium and steel than we get from primary mining sources,” Corder said.
But it’s still something the mining industry is paying attention to.
For example, the International Council on Mining & Metals (which counts the likes of BHP, Rio, and Vale among its members) has been talking about how mining will need to adapt to the needs of a more circular economy for some time [PDF].
It makes the point that while circular economy activities are being driven by consumers at the downstream segment of the economy, that it’s only a matter of time before upstream participants such as miners either change or are forced to comply.
The mine with no tailings: a pipe dream?
Corder says the way miners are thinking about a circular economy currently is not really about defining their place within it, but rather applying its thinking to their own operations.
Mining, by and large is in itself a completely wasteful industry.
Gold recoveries, for example, can be scant — think three or four parts per million.
The three to four parts get sold, the other 999,996 parts become part of the waste stream.
It’s this traditional headache which has had miners dreaming of the mine with no waste — but it hasn’t really been taken all that seriously until now.
“Even a couple of years ago, when you’d talk about having a mine with no tailings…I’d be a bit hesitant to talk to them about it because they’d laugh at you,” he said.
“But now I think the industry is really talking about it, and wants to seriously move towards it.”
Corder, who consults widely including companies, had been held back from recovering more from tailings so far by a combination of short-term economics and regulation dictating what operators could do with tailings.
“It can rely on whether it makes economic sense for the company to recover the volume from tailings — for example if you can recover iron from bauxite residues in an operation in WA…why would you?
“You’ve got wonderful hematite and magnetite deposits in the Pilbara…so it doesn’t really make sense to try and compete with that.”
Crucially, the technology to enable a zero-waste mine is almost there — if not there already.
But the current push has more to do with PR than it has to do with technology.
A disaster caught on video
Miners, by and large, have profited from operating in remote areas.
They’ve been able to hide the more unsavoury practices, such as storing huge amounts of waste material, from investors and the wider community.
While tailing dams bursting aren’t new, we’ve now entered an era when it’s caught on video and beamed around the world in the blink of an eye.
Such was the case earlier this year when the tailings dam at Vale’s Corrego do Feijao mine in Brazil burst — killing over 300 and covering parts of Brumadinho under a terrifying torrent of waste.
The video focused the minds of the public on the waste of the mining industry, and focused those in the boardrooms of mining companies on public liability.
“As a result of that, we’re now seeing that huge mining companies are starting to decommission tailings dams where they can,” Corder said.
“Mine managers can now be held liable to criminal charges if something goes wrong…and that obviously focuses the mind.
“So now they’re focused on doing the right thing while still keeping in mind that it needs to be economic.”
At the end of the day, it means that miners will need to change the way they view what is traditionally a waste stream — and the most cost-effective way of doing that, increasingly, is to turn it into a new product.
But not only will the industry need to embrace a circular mode of thinking about their operations and about their place in the broader economy — but they’ll need to prove it.
Proving it is half the battle
Proving a particular metal has been mined as sustainably as possible goes beyond simply producing a glitzy PR video on the miner’s operations.
“I think proving it is one of the huge issues around this,” Corder said.
“Because there will not only be a hope that a metal has been produced in a circular framework, but an expectation.
“As people’s living standards improve and we get more comfortable, and we have more disposable income, the people will then want to make sure that they are getting products that have been created sustainably,”
“The metals used to create that product are part of the equation.”
He said one of the technologies the industry was looking at was blockchain — which has been held up as a great way to verify pretty much anything.
“Blockchain has been one of the ways the mining industry has looked at proving that their product has been mined as sustainably as possible — but it’s a fair way off having a standardised solution in place,” said Corder.
He also said that miners were starting to move into downstream processing where possible, to provide manufacturing end-users more certainty over where a particular refined product had actually come from.
Whatever the solution which allows the move to a more circular model may be, the conversation has never been as loud as it is now.
“I’m certainly starting to have some really robust discussions with miners around this topic — probably more so than at any other point,” Corder said.
“If that’s any indication, the mining industry has started to take the idea of a more circular model seriously — because they’ve recognised that they need to.”