GHD’s Hayley Rolfe came up with the ideal analogy for mining, and the world’s, circular economy challenge at the 2023 Advancing Net Zero Mining WA conference a week after attendees at the Off-Earth Mining Forum left town.
The first Off-Earth forum held in Perth put a large group of space and mining engineers in the same room to talk about potentially shared interests and goals.
Rolfe, GHD’s circular economy technical director, used a “Cowboys versus astronauts” parallel to highlight what she sees as the shift needed from “frontier” thinking about resources, water, fuel and food, to a less profligate outlook.
“We can think about the Earth like a 20th century cowboy, or as a 21st century astronaut,” she said.
“Do we think about the Earth as having unlimited resources that are ripe for exploitation, or can we think of the Earth as a closed system without external inputs?
“If we’re on a spaceship, and I’d encourage you to think that way, each item that we have must have multiple uses. It must last for our entire journey. Or it must be repairable by the astronauts on our spaceship. Astronauts must be able to use consumable resources again and again and again. There is no room for wasted, single-use materials that pile up in a corner somewhere.
“Everything that sustains life in a spaceship is precious. Think water, oxygen, power, heat and food.
“With a global population of 8 billion people, I’d suggest that our Earth is feeling more and more like a spaceship all the time.
“For too long we’ve been thinking like cowboys.
“I know that in WA we’re renowned for our cowboy nature. And let’s face it, people love us for it.
“But now we’re faced with changing climate, supply chain disruptions, workforce problems and in some cases resource scarcity. There have been any number of studies demonstrating that we cannot achieve electrification of our global economy if we’re thinking like a cowboy.
“There are simply not enough exploitable materials to do everything we need to do and maintain our quality of life. We have to have a plan to use these materials efficiently and we need to keep them circulating in our economies.”
Rolfe said a circular economy was not just current linear economic systems “with a bit more recycling added”.
“Although our conversations often start where someone has a waste problem, the circular economy is not about waste management and recycling,” she said.
“As we’ve heard [at this conference] the circular economy is a complete rethink of our economic system. It’s a way to think about what we value. It decouples extraction from prosperity and designs out waste and pollution.
“As someone from a waste and resource background myself I can tell from experience that we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. Once we’ve created the pollution it’s too late. We’ve already committed to an inefficient process, or we’ve invested heavily in capital equipment and we’re locked in.
“If we do some preparation and think carefully about how our projects are designed we can avoid pollution and waste.
“We need to be smarter, we need to collaborate, and we need to set high standards for ourselves and others.”