A long-term view that takes advantage of future trends and opportunities will help the broader minerals industry, METS and research community to reinvent itself for success. Above ground ‘mining’ could be an important part of that future, writes Jonathan Law.

The United Nations 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development (Transforming Our World) identifies 12 aspirational Sustainable Development Goals for all nations. Amongst these is the goal of ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

Jonathan Law, Director of CSIRO Mineral Resources

In effect, this means ensuring that we manage supply and demand for materials, food, chemicals, energy and minerals in a manner that can continue to support us and future generations.

This will require growth in the amount of metals produced and also growth in the 'lifetime-in-use' of these same metals. It's about the reduction of waste through re-use, recycling and recovery – or what is increasingly being referred to as the 'circular economy'.

The circular economy is a long term vision. With recent turmoil in commodity markets, the focus for the resources industry is focussed on meeting pressing needs to reduce costs, boost productivity and maintain income. Whilst this focus is essential to get us through short term challenges – increasing pressure on global resources suggests that business as usual in the resources sector will be inadequate in the long term. Beyond this commodity price slump is a growing population and urban development that by 2050 is expected to more than double (to 180 billion tonnes) the current 80 billion tonnes of materials used each year.

This raises the question: 'How can we re-invent our industry to meet the global challenges ahead?'

In this issue of resourceful we look at the research and innovation that can enable our industries to prosper by creating wealth and new products from waste - at least part of the answer may be in recycling or 'above ground mining'.

As the world becomes more industrial and urbanised, more of our mineral resources are located in above ground products and constructions. At the end of their life cycle, these product or objects become waste that, while frequently discarded, is potentially available for harvest and re-use. Old electronic devices, computers, mobile phones and the like immediately spring to mind and are rich in many important elements. Gold recovered from a tonne of mobile phones would be about 30 times higher than expected from a tonne of reasonable gold ore.

We also examine national and global issues affecting Australian opportunities from a circular economy. Given the global flows of materials from one country to another, the circular economy is a global concept. Nations tend to be relatively uncircular - either net exporters (such as Australia) or net importers, and so the consequences of a circular economy will impact nations differently. To take real advantage of the changes that are anticipated, it seems likely that our industry will increasingly evolve from being 'miners' to being global 'product suppliers'. Where does that leave Australia?

One estimate (World Economic Forum) suggests that Australia stands to realise $26 billion in annual cost savings from moving to such an economy. But this is only if Australia can embrace the change and encourage the long term innovation required to be globally competitive in waste reduction, recycling and re-use.

And here lies the challenge. Senior resource sector leaders interviewed as part of recent CSIRO research (Deverell et al.) highlighted having 'a short term focus' or a 'focus on maximising existing assets' as among the main barriers to realising the benefits of innovation. We are striving to overcome these barriers by pursuing breakthroughs through strategic partnerships and collaborations with industry, research and government agencies.

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