The circular economy and geology

Humankind used almost one hundred billion tons of different raw materials and other material last year. According to the estimates in the Circularity Gap Report the global recycling rate was around 8.5% which means it dropped by half a percentage point from the level of 2018.

There’s plenty of potential to raise that percentage, but often the economic viability of recycling becomes an issue. This might be reflected in the fact that large quantities of metal waste produced in Europe ends up in Asia and Africa. A geologist can also easily identify several raw materials for which we do not yet have reserves large enough to meet the ever growing and diversifying need for materials. Lithium and other rare earth elements serve as a fine example. As for the energy revolution and electrification of traffic especially, we do not have the necessary material reserves for introducing a battery revolution, for example.

Replacing materials, material efficiency in production, designing products to be recyclable and industrial symbioses are all important topics for the research and development needed to establish a circular economy. In its 2017 report The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low Carbon Future, the World Bank predicted that the global demand for materials required for low carbon technologies will rapidly increase by 2050 (lithium 965%, graphite 383% and nickel 108%). If we do not have reserves of recyclable material or a replacement raw material, we will need more primary production to feed into the circular economy.

Attention is often paid to the specialised raw materials needed by developing countries, but global population growth, the middle class becoming wealthier and growing urbanisation all increase the demand for “traditional” mining products, such as iron and copper. For these metals, the challenge lies in the decreasing ore concentrations and the growth in production needed to compensate it. This means that while answering to materials needs of developing countries, it is very important to find ways to ensure that primary production is sustainable in addition to ensuring that materials stay in the production cycle.

GTK takes part in building a-growing-yet-sustainable circular economy with the new joint laboratory of GTK, VTT and Aalto university, among other ways. Together with our partners we strive to find new synergies in the research of inorganic materials and metals and for the development of recycling and recovery methods. The laboratory is a central part of the larger Circular Raw Materials Hub that also comprises VTT’s materials technology laboratories in Tampere, Bioruukki in Espoo’s Kivenlahti and GTK’s mineral processing pilot plant in Outokumpu (GTK Mintec). The Hub provides a wide range of services for different stakeholders from a wide scale, one of its customers being the battery industry. Our partners included, some 20 professors and 250 other experts participate in the Hub’s different projects in research of inorganic materials and metals and the development of recycling and recovery methods. Its project portfolio is worth around EUR 35 million. There’s plenty of work to do, but with the Hub’s interdisciplinary cooperation and high-tech equipment we have the best facilities to yield excellent results – they are sorely needed!

You are welcome to stop by our and take a closer look at the Circular Raw Materials Hub.

Saku Vuori
Director, Science and Innovations