What is a circular economy and how do we achieve it?

Using spent pot lining from the aluminium production process to make cement can reduce carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions

Using spent pot lining in cement production can cut the amount of carbon dioxide by 3.5% for each tonne of cement made. Image courtesy of Mubadala
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In PwC’s 2019 global CEO survey, chief executives around the world were twice as likely to ‘strongly agree’ that investing in climate change initiatives was of critical importance to their organisations than they were just a decade before.

That sentiment has been strongly echoed here in the UAE, with the country showing itself to be a proactive champion for action to mitigate climate change through the release of its National Climate Change Plan 2017-2050 – and key industries are playing their part to meet these targets. Companies today are making dedicated efforts to reduce emissions, invest in renewables and make supply chains more sustainable.

Whilst these actions are commendable, we are still a long way away from meeting the global goals of holding the temperature to well below a two degree increase by the end of the century. It is becoming clear that greater collaboration is needed and the time has now come to work with other industries in the fight against climate change, through the ‘circular economy’ concept.

Long just a catchphrase, the concept of the circular economy has become an attractive strategy for companies looking to extend the life of their products and achieve sustainability targets. It works differently from ordinary agreements and climate change action since resources are reintegrated into the supply chain, cutting down on energy consumption, increasing the value of resources and length of product life-cycles, and reducing waste.

Despite some initial scepticism around the concept, its impact on industries such as steel, plastics, aluminium and cement has been impressive. A 2019 study conducted by sustainability consultancy Material Economics suggested that industry leaders adopting a more circular economy in the European Union alone could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 56 per cent by 2050, indicating that the practice is ready for wider-scale deployment.

Realising the benefits of a circular economy, however, relies on innovation, while matching the needs of different industries.

Emirates Global Aluminium has experienced this first-hand, here in the UAE. Working with the UAE cement industry, we have re-worked their supply chains and our waste management processes, collaborating to solve major challenges for both sectors.

The cement industry today is responsible for 8 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. To illustrate the magnitude of the problem, if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States and China.

EGA has for years worked on ways to manage spent pot lining (SPL), a by-product of aluminium smelting. What to do with SPL has been a global challenge, with much stored indefinitely.

The fact that the fluoride content in EGA SPL could be used to manufacture cement at lower temperatures, reducing energy needs as well as carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide use, has proven to be both a business and environmental success story. Waste is reduced, and using SPL as an alternative energetic refractory material lowers cement manufacturing’s energy and quarrying needs.

EGA has previously invited students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study the benefits of using SPL in the cement-making process. They found that CO2 emissions per tonne of cement produced were lower by 3.5 per cent when using 0.6 per cent SPL in cement raw mix.

That does not mean more SPL should be produced of course, and EGA’s latest aluminium smelting technology is able to achieve a 34 per cent reduction in SPL production compared with past technologies. EGA’s SPL waste generation per tonne of aluminium produced is 30 per cent lower than the current global average.

The circular economy offers a compelling case for businesses both at home and abroad, under the microscope of our collective experience with the Covid-19 pandemic: greater resource productivity, sustainability in resource utilisation, reduced environmental impact, and a spirit of collaboration.

If we, the industries in the UAE, can rethink our supply chains to drive operational as well as ecological benefits, we will begin to generate millions of dirhams worth of cost savings every year, while continuing to position our country as a leader in combatting climate change.

We will also begin to see environmental gains and unlock innovations that benefit future generations in the years to come. A worthy cause for all.

Salman Abdulla is an executive vice president at Emirates Global Aluminium