Monday, 21 June 2021

Sustainable Minerals '21 Day 1: Circular economy and recycling

Monday June 21st

Sustainable Minerals '21, MEI's 6th International Symposium on Sustainable Minerals, has been organised in consultation with Prof. Markus Reuter, of SMS Group GmbH, Germany and is sponsored by FLSmidth. The media sponsor is International Mining, and the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution (CEEC), the Cornwall Mining Alliance and the Critical Minerals Association are Industry Associates.

MEI’s Jon Wills welcomed the 104 participants from 17 countries this morning, saying that the conference comes at a critical time for the minerals industry and the outlook for sustainability, as the world won’t be able to tackle the climate crisis unless there is a sharp increase in the supply of metals required to produce clean energy technologies, the demand soaring for copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt and rare earth elements.

With a world population of over 7.8 billion, sustaining our way of life is becoming a major issue, but it is not widely acknowledged that a sustainable society is very much dependent on a sustainable mining industry. Mining never gets easier, the tonnages mined steadily increase while the available ores become ever leaner and complex, so in order for the industry to be sustainable it must continually adapt to these changes and innovate.

Ores are finite resources, so there will be an increasing strain on primary sources, and a concomitant increase in energy and water requirements. Critical to a sustainable future, however, is the need to move from a linear to a circular economy, by retreating old tailings dumps and crucially by recycling materials at the end of their effective lives.

So there is much to look forward to this week and the conference got off to a good start this morning with the first technical session on the Circular Economy, Prof. Luis Marcelo Tavares, of the University of Rio de Janeiro, showing that sustainability in mining must be envisaged from a more comprehensive perspective that involves the management of primary and secondary resources and that prioritises the adoption of innovation beyond a techno-economic mindset. 

Taking us up to the morning break, two very pertinent presentations from Finland and Germany emphasised mining’s crucial role in society. Prof. Simon Michaux, of the Geological Survey of Finland said that global reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system or satisfy long term demand in the current system. Mineral deposit discovery has been declining for many metals. The grade of processed ore for many of the industrial metals has been decreasing over time, resulting in declining mineral processing yield. This has the implication of the increase in mining energy consumption per unit of metal. 

Dr. Mathilde Robben, of Tomra Sorting, Germany, stressed that the transformation from a linear economy to a circular economy is of direct relevance to the mining industry, as it is a major producer of minerals and metals, as well as a big consumer of energy, water and chemicals. While consumer goods companies dominate the circular economy conversations, it is essential that the minerals resource industry contributes to an economy that is efficient in how it extracts, produces, consumes, recovers, and recycles resources. She showed that sensor-based sorting solutions have proven their worth not only as a ground-breaking technological innovation. Considering that grinding is the most energy-intensive part of the production cycle, implementing sorting in the early stages of processing reduces waste material and shrinks the carbon footprint while increasing profitability. 

Two presentations, from UK and Finland took us to the lunch break. Rowan Halkes, of Camborne School of Mines, introduced the MIREU project, which aims to establish a European mining and metallurgy network, involving 30 partners from 17 regions, and identify methods to ensure the continued sustainable supply of mineral raw materials throughout Europe. The project has also developed new Social Licence to Operate guidelines which will be utilised across Europe.

Riina Aromaa, of Aalto University, Finland then discussed the environmental impacts of hydrometallurgical cobalt sulfate production from Finnish ores. The demand for cobalt is projected to increase and recycling remaining insufficient to satisfy the demand, so environmentally acceptable primary production remains necessary as cobalt production is dominated by a few regions producing cobalt from nickel or copper ores. Riina described work aiming to quantify selected environmental impact categories for hydrometallurgical production of cobalt sulfate from a potential deposit of Co-Cu-Au ore where CoAsS is the main cobalt mineral.

Prior to the lunch break there was the first of our 20-minute networking functions, where delegates are placed at random into a group of maximum 3 participants for 5 minutes, and then after this being moved to another group, our way of recreating those random meets over a cup of coffee at a conference!  Feedback on this would be appreciated.

The afternoon was dominated by presentations on that most important aspect of seeking a circular economy, recycling, with eight presentations on various aspects of recycling, from Finland, Germany, Japan, Portugal, South Africa and Spain.

And so ended a very full and productive day. All the conference abstracts can be viewed on the website, and all presentations will be available on demand to registered delegates until the end of the year.



  1. Thank you for the summary Barry!

    Marcelo Tavares’s key note presentation (“A life cycle-based, sustainability-driven innovation approach in the minerals industry”) certainly set the stage for a stimulating and thought-provoking conference.

    There were of course a number of very good presentations as you underlined.

    However, the one that got me thinking, and frankly a bit concerned, is Simon Michaux’s presentation “The mining of minerals and the limits to growth”. His presentation underlines not only the imminent nature of the challenges before us, but also the limitations that we are confronted with.

    Looking forward to hearing and learning more!

    Peter Radziszewski

    1. Thanks Peter. Yes Simon's presentation did highlight the importance of mining to society, and underlined how important this conference series is. Maybe you could add more to this in the panel discussion on Thursday?


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