From business as usual to business for the future
As 2020 begins, the world is at a crucial juncture. The “Decade to Deliver” in terms of meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals has arrived.
This sense of urgency was keenly felt earlier this year at the 50th anniversary of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. There was broad accord that continuing to operate within a linear economic model is no longer viable in our resource-constrained world. Moreover, as the world looks beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic, the task of rebuilding for better, including the need for more resilient and sustainable supply chains, heightens the focus on circularity.
Accelerate the transition to a circular future
The time for transformative, collaborative action is now. Research suggests that greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere can only be decreased by approximately 50 percent through carbon reducing operational efficiencies and widescale implementation of renewable energy solutions. The remaining 50 percent must come from a transformation in how we produce and consume resources. Businesses must play a leading role in this new economic structure, spearheading innovation for change to protect the planet and create new value.
The circular economy presents a framework for this change. Calling for a full reinvention of entire value chains, waste is designed out; products are looped back into the system; growth is decoupled from consumption; and materials are kept within productive use. Circularity is also an engine for opportunity creation across industries, where through innovative business models and enabling new technologies, the very concept of waste is redefined.
Opportunities for circularity in metals and mining
One industry where circularity is gaining ground as a solution to resource challenges is across metals and mining. Mined metal commodity production is predicted to jump to 250 percent by 2030 to satisfy demand, resulting in significant increases across extraction and waste generation activities (see diagram).
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Despite the challenges, the opportunities for sustainable value capture are vast. For example, companies can implement zero-waste-to-landfill initiatives and innovative metal recycling solutions. A circular transition is possible in the metals and mining industry, and the potential to scale solutions is amplified by breakthroughs in renewable energy and digital technologies.
A mining company leads the charge
Anglo American is an industry leader embracing circularity at pace with several key initiatives, including land rehabilitation through top-soil cultivation and water reuse. It also prioritizes the repurposing of end-of-life mines as part of a broader remit to support local communities. As Chair of Anglo American’s management board in South Africa, Nolitha Fakude outlines, “Conversations with local stakeholders are essential to determine how Anglo American can enable mining communities to continue to thrive at a mine’s end of life.”
Anglo American is also seizing the opportunity to unlock embedded value in material previously discarded as waste through its FutureSmart Mining™ program. FutureSmart Mining is its innovation-led approach to sustainable mining. Technology, digitalization and sustainability are working hand in hand to transform the nature of mining. Through FutureSmart Mining, Anglo American is, for example, addressing some legacy challenges and identifying a way to clean up some of its old or closed tailings facilities, extracting the valuable residual metals and minerals. New chemistries are enabling the company to be more specific in how to target minerals through the leaching process, significantly enhancing recoveries in lower grade ores.
Despite progress, primary demand for minerals and metals is unlikely to be fulfilled by secondary supplies as there is not enough accessible scrap or used material available. As a result, ingenuity and innovation have never been more critical to transition sustainably to circularity at scale.
As Mark Cutifani, Chief Executive of Anglo American emphasizes, “A shift toward a more circular economy presents a significant opportunity for mining companies that are willing to embrace it by reimagining their businesses and partnering with the intermediate and end users of the essential metals and minerals they produce. For Anglo American, as a leading producer of many of the products critical to a cleaner, greener, more sustainable world, this goes to the heart of our purpose. It is a challenge we are addressing directly through our FutureSmart Mining approach—coupling step-change innovations in technology and sustainability to transform the future footprint of mining across the entire value chain.”
This powerful example shows how metals and mining companies are an essential part of the solution for a sustainable future. As such, it is imperative that they accelerate their journey to circularity.
Special thanks to Cathy McAndrew and Harriet Poulter for their contributions to this article.
Note: Figures and company mentions in this article come from The Circular Economy Handbook. Quotes from Nolitha Fakude and Mark Cutifani are included with their permission.