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Squaring the Circle – The Circular Economy, Urban Mining and Mineral Resource Policy

As Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission for energy policy outlined earlier this month in a video clip, pursuing the vision of a closed-loop circular economy is one of the core tenets of EU resource policy.

The concept of a circular economy — a system which thrives on sustainability and focuses mainly on refining design production and recycling to ensure that little to no waste results — is not new, but with technological advances and against the backdrop of an increasingly interconnected world has gained traction in recent years.

In an effort to explore the application of the concept to the mineral resource sector, Chris Lo, writing for Mining-Technology.com, asked earlier this year:

“How does a global society, one that is as dependent as ever on key industrial metals to feed into the production of basic products and high-tech gadgets, begin to square this circle?” One piece of the puzzle, he pointed out, lies in the “opposite end of the supply chain to the exploration and production activities that occupy the mining sector.”

He writes:

“More extensive recycling of waste metal could bring incredible sustainability benefits, from saving energy and water to avoiding excessive environmental impacts from primary production.” Thankfully, many metals and minerals lend themselves to supporting the concept of a circular economy in light of their properties.  Copper, for example, can be recycled infinitely without losing any of its qualities (for a visual example, see this infographic on Copper’s contribution to Europe’s Circular Economy).

As we have previously outlined, urban mining, the process of “reclaiming resources from products, buildings and waste” which are often “consumed and disposed of in urban areas, transforming cities into resource ‘mines’ which could be sourced for secondary resources to be reintegrated back into the supply chain” is increasingly becoming an important component of comprehensive mineral resource policy.

However, while in the long-run, a closed-loop circular economy may be feasible, we are nowhere near that point.

Says Lo:

“In a perfect world, society’s consumption of mining products would be a closed loop, with all metals recycled into new products and the mining industry stepping in to extract new commodities to make up for metal dissipation and demand growth. Ours is far from a perfect world, however, and such a comprehensive recycling system – if it is even technically feasible – is a long way off.”Indeed, recovering tech and precious metals from consumer electronics remains fraught with challenges.  Meanwhile, research to improve mining processing techniques and recovery and reclamation of materials are well underway.

We pointed to two examples last year:

“Researchers at the International Islamic University Malaysia published their findings on the development of a new way to ‘extract the lithium and the cobalt that make up the bulk of the metal components of [rechargeable] batteries.’

Closer to home — in the U.S., that is — there is the current collaboration between the Department of Energy’s Critical Materials Institute (CMI) and Rio Tinto, one strand of which is exploring better methods of extracting critical metals from eWaste.”

Other promising research efforts are underway in research hubs all over the world. Progress on various fronts not withstanding, however, we stand by our conclusion from last year:

“Urban mining will by no means obviate the need for traditional mining and is as such not a panacea for supply woes.  With innovations in the field and concerted efforts to not only improve extraction technologies, but to also develop products and materials in ways that lend themselves to easier reclamation of metals, it does, however, represent a viable opportunity to alleviate pressures – and as such deserves to be factored into any comprehensive mineral resource strategy.”