Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Circular economy is about resource efficiency, not "only" recycling

Nikolaos Arvaniditis
(IAPG Task Group on Responsible Mining, Sweden)

Nikolaos Arvaniditis
What is Circular Economy?

Circular economy is aimed at creating and ensuring improved flows of goods and services. Product lifecycle should thereby be part of a closed cycle that keeps intact longer product life through efficient reuse of end of life products and / or waste recycling. Circular economy is shared with socio-economic and environmental aspects, and the term is often used in connection with sustainability as it applies to the entire chain, from production and consumption to waste management and marketing of secondary raw materials. The intention is to reduce resource consumption, reduce waste and, instead, lift reuse and recycling. In other words, changing the way the economy works today. For this to happen, you do not need to focus on the product life cycle length, but instead try to invest in innovative and efficient production and consumption paths.

European Union (EU) strategy and action plan
The EU Commission launched and adopted at the beginning of December 2015 a strategic direction and an action plan to make the EU economy more circular and increase recycling in the Member States. Achieving the new recycling targets would save € 600 trillion in EU enterprising, create 580,000 new jobs while making the EU more competitive and decreasing the demand for resources. This would also entail less environmental impact and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Europeans are asked to recycle 70% of municipal waste and 80% of packaging material by 2030. In addition, landfill of recyclable waste is prohibited from 2025. The transition to circular economy was supposed to be financed with € 650 million from Horizon 2020 (EU funding program for research and innovation), € 5.5 billion from Structural Funds for waste management, and investments in the circular economy at national level.
Research and innovation were considered to be key factors in the success of the circular economy. Therefore, Horizon 2020 program would contribute to the expertise needed to create a resource-efficient, green and competitive economy in the EU. The development towards a circular economy is central to the resource efficiency agenda established within the Europe 2020 strategy for smart and sustainable growth for all.

Circular economy in the mineral raw materials industry

Around 2050, the world economy is expected to quadruple and global population grow from 7.3 billion today to nearly 10 billion. This development will be enormously pressing for raw materials and energy resources, but also the environment. Within the framework of the sustainable growth goal, it could mean necessity for a more efficient use of resources. The way things are developing there is a growing interest and implementation for research and innovation project activities on the issue of resource-efficient and circular economy that concerns the exploitation and use of non-energy mineral resources. According to available information (UNEP, 2011; EU’s 2017 Critical Raw Materials list), less than one-third of about 60 metals have more than 50% recovery over their lifetime, while 34 elements have less than 1%. For example, the recycling rate is very low and is below 1% for most critical mineral raw materials, such as rare earth elements, indium, gallium, germanium and beryllium, which means that their production and supply will still depend on mining of primary mineral resources.

The resource efficiency is then central when it comes to lifting the circular economy model in relation to raw materials value chain linked to mineral, mining and metal industries. Previous studies that have recommended and proposed that the exploitation of mineral resources should be disconnected from needs and demand for increasing growth showed to be not realistic and irrelevant. On the other hand, the application of a more resource-efficient, inclusive and circular economy could then lead to achieving a sustainable use of mineral resources, from both environmental and socio-economic perspectives. However, due mainly to increasing global population, even though we manage to make resource efficiency and circular economy applications an everyday practice the demand for more mineral raw materials will continue to grow.

The application of the circular economy concept, as far as the mineral raw materials value chain concerns, is more about being resource efficient right across it, and at any production level and stage. Having the primary mineral resources’ main commodities and by-products recovered, recycled and/or reused when they’re still in the loop and before becoming and ending up as wastes. Of course, transforming existing mining waste (e.g. historical abandoned, current waste rocks, tailings and metallurgical residues) potential into secondary resources would also be targeted. Achieving this would require policy-related reforms, innovative technological capacity and well-defined business plans.  An important aspect to be also considered is whether resource efficiency and circular economy can contribute to limiting or managing in a better way the growing public opinion on mining.

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