As we push our planetary boundaries to the limit, and resources become scarce, it is essential for businesses to shift to more self-sustaining means of production. Customers and suppliers increasingly expect mining and metals companies to align their strategies and operations with an emerging “circular economy” in which products or parts are repaired, reused, returned, and recycled rather than simply discarded.

Against this backdrop, the World Economic Forum launched Mining and Metals in a Sustainable World 2050, a multi-year initiative to explore how the sector can be a leader on sustainability. What is clear already from this work is that mining and metals companies can take a number of important steps to promote circular business models:

  • Reduce: Limit the use of virgin raw materials and more closely align supply with demand; improve efficiency of resource exploitation (the yield rate) by mechanization, automation and optimization; enhance the recovery rate of mineral processing and smelting; limit pollutant emissions such as tailings, gangue, and mine wastewater; and develop applications for lower grade ore;
  • Reuse: Extend the longevity of a resource, material, product, or service by anticipating and planning for future applications; install cyclic wastewater, waste, and tailings systems in mining operations, and improve mineral processing technology; maximize the use of waste and byproducts; collaborate downstream to design adaptable and easy-to-repair products; use of marking materials and alloys to aid identification at end-of-life and accelerate subsequent resource application; and
  • Recycle: Reduce waste by processing resources and metal products so that they become newly available resources; treat waste water before discharge; develop processing capabilities to accommodate higher rates of scrap.

To make this happen, mining and metals companies will need to address three key areas: develop a workforce with the right set of skills and capabilities (particularly for lifecycle assessments); be more actively involved in scrap markets; and focus on customer and consumer relationships.

The scale of the journey required by the industry is substantial. As such, our initial attention has focused on the challenge of reducing extraction of virgin resources, while meeting the demands of a global population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2030, including 3 billion new middle-class consumers.  Addressing this conundrum is critical for the sector. But we have yet to engage deeply in this conversation.

The global shift towards a more “closed loop” economy is one that needs to be embraced by the mining and metals sector. The industry can be shaped by this change—or it can choose to shape the change.

Opportunities exist across the value chain from waste and tailings restatement and scrap treatment to recycling, redesign, and development and new ownership models such as leasing. Developing a clearer understanding of the opportunities and the key disruptors that enable them is essential. In particular, technology and innovation around treatment and design is critical but so is the role of regulation and the emergence of bold new business and ownership models.

Despite the near-term challenges for the mining and metals sector, including the commodities downturn, now is a time to a find a voice in these critical debates and to seek opportunities across the value chain to close the loop.

This article is published in collaboration with SUSTAIN. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum. 

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Author: Gillian Davidson is the Head of Mining & Metals at the World Economic Forum.

Image: An aerial view shows pools of mineral-coloured water gathered on salt flats in holes dug by salt collectors on the Senegalese coastline near the border with Gambia. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly.