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Closing the Loop – An Important Tool in Our All-of-the-Above Toolkit

In a recent piece for The Hill, Adina Renee Adler, deputy executive director of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington, D.C.-area based think tank, calls for the increased harnessing of circular economy concepts in service to U.S. critical mineral resource policy.

Acknowledging bipartisan efforts to strengthen U.S. critical mineral supply chains in the past year, for which she says Congress should be commended, Adler says “the truth is the United States won’t be able to produce or stockpile its way out of the current critical mineral crisis.” 

She argues that leveraging the circular economy model in the context of which stakeholders “recover still-viable critical materials from existing products and reintegrate them into commerce via a ‘reverse supply chain,’ rather than solely extracting new minerals from mines,” can not only “prevent environmental degradation and combat climate change by reducing waste and limiting the need for new, carbon-intensive manufacturing and extraction,” but “will also be crucial to reducing the United States’ dependence on strategic adversaries for critical minerals.” 

Adler cites USGS numbers and a recent peer-reviewed study indicating “that recycling from select consumer goods and recovery from the byproducts of other mining and phosphate processing could yield from two to 11 times the volume of rare earth elements that could be extracted through processing the raw materials.”

She adds:

“Although cost, availability and quality are major factors in the success of recycling, the potential is nevertheless there to retrieve up to three-and-a-half times more dysprosium from recycling earbuds than from ores, six times more lanthanum from hybrid batteries, six times more neodymium from spent polishing powders and 11 times more scandium from aluminum and other “red mud” ore processing.  This yield could be a significant secure source of critical materials with the acceleration of the circular economy.”

Australia is also looking to the circular economy as part of its efforts to “treat… this waste as a source of value,” which a recent piece in The Conversation considers a means to “reducing the environmental footprint of mining while producing critical minerals and other vital products such as sand.”

The Conversation piece cites a number of promising initiatives ranging from miners looking to recover what comprises one of the largest deposits of rare earth elements from the tailings from iron ore mining at the Luossavaara-Kiirunavaara Aktiebolag mine in Sweden via a circular industrial park and projects to recover critical materials from coal ash, to investments in secondary prospecting and development such as Rio Tinto’s A$2 million investment into a new startup using income from mine waste mineral recovery to pay for mining site rehabilitation.

However, given the sheer size and scope of our nation’s critical mineral woes against the backdrop of ever-increasing geopolitical stakes, the solution to our mineral resource and supply chain challenges still lies in a comprehensive “all-of-the-above” approach, in which closing the loop is one tool in our toolkit.

Adina Renee Adler acknowledges this in her piece.  While outlining the potential of the circular economy, she stresses the importance of closing the loop for certain metals and minerals “in tandem with its efforts to boost domestic production of critical materials.”

As ARPN has stated elsewhere, there is no immediate silver bullet, but against mounting resource pressures, focusing on closing the loop and building out domestic production and processing capabilities — while at the same time fostering cooperation with close allies and scaling up research and development — are all essential to secure resource supplies in the long run.