Mineral anthropogenic resources in circular economy

The symbiosis of mining, energy and infrastructure is of crucial importance.

Every year in Europe, the mining and energy sectors produce around 700 million tonnes of mineral waste. Out of the almost 150 million tonnes over 100 million tonnes of coal combustion by-products in the power industry are produced in 28 countries of the European Union, of which over 24 million tonnes in Poland in the form of ashes and synthetic gypsum.

By-products of coal combustion are subject to REACH regulation, so as to enable introducing them on the market as chemical substances subject to this law. They are mainly used as raw materials for the production of cement, binders and concrete as well as aggregates and fillers in the construction industry. Their use is safe for people and the environment.

Rational raw materials management

Meeting European or national technical standards for specific applications is the key technical prerequisite for the use of by-products of coal combustion in construction and agriculture. We are able to process them in order to turn them into construction products.

Protection of natural resources and their rational, efficient management is a direct objective and context of the closed-loop economy. This is why all anthropogenic mineral resources can and should be used in infrastructure construction first, before reaching for natural resources.

At the stage of planning infrastructural projects, the parity of use of products from anthropogenic mineral resources should be envisaged. The Closed-loop Material Circulation Index (MCI) in the construction aggregates sector in Poland in recent years has been at a drastically low level of 0.02, with the EU average of about 0.20. Looking at the statistics regarding the production of mineral waste, the amount of complex resources at landfills and the construction needs, it should ultimately reach even 0.50. Then we will be able to leave resources to future generations, not heaps.

The introduction of the Principle of Priority for Secondary Materials by the government will open markets for mining and energy and will create rational premises for these sectors to systematically convert their mineral resources into products. This can and should take place as the development of new business lines for the production of anthropogenic products. However, the symbiosis moderated by government regulations is of key importance in this respect. Such actions will significantly contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Energy contained in mineral waste from the power industry can perform measurable work in infrastructure construction. The forerunner of this approach was the TEFRA project (2012), using the Joint Implementation JI (Joint Implementation JI). Within five years, it helped avoid the emission of over 350,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere by producing and supplying the market with adhesives from combustion by-products. The reduction of emissions is achieved through the effective replacement of cement and lime in selected geotechnical applications –  mainly in road construction –  which was confirmed by the official allocation of a sufficient number of emission reduction units (ERUs). These units were a means of meeting the state’s reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.

Regulations are necessary

At the same time, let us remember about the activities of the European Commission, which, while working on the implementation of circular economy in recent years, has identified regulations concerning the contact between chemicals, products and waste and indicated why they constitute an obstacle to closing the loop. The key issue is the presence of certain substances in materials, which hinders or even prevents their recycling.

It has been pointed out that even strong odours of harmless substances can generally prevent their reuse. The concept of substances of concern has been introduced.

The aim is to facilitate recovery processes and increase the use of secondary materials, including their cross-border trade and the substitution of potentially hazardous substances with non-hazardous ones. It seems necessary to play an active part in this process and to ensure that mineral resources from coal mining and energy do not find themselves outside the closing loop of economic cycles.

The closed-loop economy is possible only with the active participation of the government as a regulator, which is able to implement mechanisms friendly to the use of mineral resources from mining and energy in the construction industry, especially in the infrastructural sector, using such tools as the roadmap of circular economy or the Raw Materials Policy of the Country. The change of perspective and the implementation of specific regulations will give domestic entrepreneurs a chance to further develop new technologies and support the economy.

In the face of COP24, it is worth looking for an answer to the question of how to start a revolution which will help implement measures that have a significant impact on the reduction of the influence of coal-fired power generation in an economically effective manner, which in our conditions will have a significant share in the energy mix of Poland by 2050.

– The author works in the Centre for Engineering of Anthropogenic Minerals, Institute of Applied Research, Warsaw University of Technology.

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