Four Ways to Make a Clean Transition to a Sustainable Circular Economy in the Mining Sector

By Bertrand Assamoi Dalberg Advisors

A circular economy creates vast opportunities that serve as a sustainable alternative to the traditional, linear economy. In a circular economy, products and materials are kept in use for as long as possible by reusing and recycling them instead of extracting resources, using them, and then discarding the waste. This can help to regenerate systems, while minimizing waste and environmental impact. This approach can be particularly useful to the mining industry, where applying circular economy principles can also help reduce operational costs and optimize the use of finite resources, leading to more sustainable mining practices. 

Onshoring the processing and production of critical minerals for a green transition as part of a circular mining model could reduce the global volume of minerals required, decarbonize global supply chains, and drive local manufacturing and economic activities. This approach is vital to meet pressing global challenges such as climate change, pollution, and scarcity of resources, while promoting innovation and fostering resilient, inclusive societies. 

These were some of the viable solutions to emerging global issues discussed at the eighth edition of the World Circular Economy Forum (WCEF), the world’s leading event for circular economy thinkers. Held in Brussels, Belgium, in April, it fostered an exchange of knowledge and expertise between leaders from business, government, academia, and civil society with the purpose of advancing the transition towards a circular economy through the implementation of supportive policies and essential financial investments. 

 As part of the discussions at the event, Bertrand Assamoi, Associate Partner at Dalberg Advisors, co-moderated a session on “Enhancing Circularity in Africa’s Mining Sector,” led by the African Circular Economy Alliance (ACEA) and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Panelists included Prof. Linda Godfrey from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa, Dr. Tommi Kauppila from the Geological Survey of Finland, Alex Lagaud from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development of Côte d’Ivoire, and Davinah Milenge from the African Development Bank. 

Following are key takeaways:

Adopt New Models

As the demand for critical raw materials rises to enable green transitions, the concept of Materials as a Service (MaaS) is emerging as a novel circular model that could bring multiple benefits for the environment and for African communities and economies. Under the MaaS model, companies or countries that supply raw minerals lease them to the manufacturers instead of selling them. The producing entity then recovers the materials or semi-finished goods at the end of life of the product. This model can provide African countries with a continuous revenue stream for their natural resources while enabling a transition to a circular economy that better caters to local communities’ socioeconomic needs. However, for MaaS to work, we need to have the right data on content, quality and traceability, the optimal legal infrastructure, and broad collaboration between government, private sector, civil society, and academia to jointly drive the process. 

Make it Easy for Business 

 It is crucial for the government to play a key role in incentivizing circular solutions for private sector actors, such as mining companies and original equipment manufacturers. Investment needs to be financially attractive through policies, regulation, and fiscal instruments. Additionally, designing mining projects with circularity in mind to maximize resource efficiency for inputs such as water and energy will foster an ecosystem to drive circularity within and across value chains. With this approach, materials treated as waste in one industry (e.g., the other minerals outside the main commodity extracted) could be used as inputs for products such as roof tiling, cement, or other construction materials.

Mobilize Local Communities 

Local communities should be tapped for their knowledge of how to use the mineral waste and create value for the resources that are discarded as waste. Civil society can bring about shifts in the global financial architecture through their advocacy and sensitization efforts. In addition, civil society can support the contribution of local communities to design sustainable mining solutions and ensure that the benefits are channeled to the communities.

Maximize Multistakeholder Platforms

Platforms such as ACEA are an excellent breeding ground for innovative ideas for new business opportunities. African Development Bank (AfDB), which hosts the Alliance, can provide the right platform for stakeholders with divergent interests to collaborate effectively, to negotiate in a fair manner, and to create and facilitate the flow of knowledge and capital. ACEA established five working groups based on the five big bets for the circular economy in Africa identified in the Alliance’s 2021 report, led by Dalberg. The working group on plastics, for example, has shown encouraging results in Ghana, thanks notably to the country’s involvement since 2019 in another platform called the Global Plastic Action Partnership, led by the World Economic Forum. Learnings from the ACEA plastic working group can be effectively applied in the mining industry. For instance, key pillars identified to establish a framework in the plastic industry — such as a legal and regulatory framework and principles and practices of circularity — can act as a reference for establishing a framework for the mining industry. 

“Two elements are at the center of circularity in the mining industry — access and ownership. Ultimately, resources must enrich people and planet. If we manage to do that through a balance of legal frameworks and finance, then other requirements such as data, technology, skills, etc. can be allocated to maintain that critical balance.”

— Davinah Milenge, African Development Bank

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