Mining and the circular economy support each other

7th February 2023 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

Mining was essential if the world was to create a circular economic system, Finnish Geological Survey director-general Kimmo Tiilikainen has pointed out. He was addressing a Sustainable Mining Breakfast, jointly hosted in Cape Town by the Embassies of Denmark, Finland and Sweden, on Tuesday. The breakfast was a ‘fringe’ event of the Investing in African Mining Indaba 2023.

“The mining industry is necessary for the sustainable economy,” he affirmed. However, mining would have to take environmental and social issues into account in a way that industry had not done before. As the volume of mining increased, the bar for environmental and social standards would have to be raised.

“There is a huge need for critical minerals, and shortages may occur,” he highlighted. “We need to speed up exploration.” The development of new mines also needed to be accelerated. “There will be a hurry [sic] for new investments.” These will be necessary to meet decarbonisation targets.

“Investments in the circular economy can support sustainable mining in a remarkable way,” he assured. However, currently, the mining and processing of metals and minerals produced huge amounts of waste material. Future mine and processing plant designs had to be optimised to minimise the waste produced.

Further, sustainable mining required that uses be found for this waste. It had to be processed to extract everything that was useful. And, ideally, the remaining waste should be separated into its different factions, which would be stockpiled separately, to allow their easy retrieval once a use had been found for them. Just because there was no use for such materials now did not mean that a use would not be found for them in the future. There were various metals, for example, which only became useful in the recent, in some cases very recent, past.

Speaking at the same breakfast, Sibanye-Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman agreed about the importance of developing a circular economy. “I’ve already factored into our company the circular economy,” he said. “The circular economy needs to be bigger. But, even with that, there are going to be constraints.”

There were simply not enough metals being produced to meet the needs of global decarbonisation. “We’re going to have to tailor our expectations.” Internal combustion engines would be around longer than desired and so would need greener fuels.

For the mining industry, he affirmed that he had never in his 40-year career seen such an opportunity as that created by the need to decarbonise. On the other hand, in the US (for example) it had never been so difficult to obtain mining permits. It was a real contradiction, he highlighted: these metals were so much needed, yet it had never been so difficult to get mines authorised.