It was common cause that all global growth, all added economic value, came ultimately from two sources – agriculture and mining. Even manufacturing relied on raw material inputs, and everything else was just supporting activity. But that was before the digital age.
Now services account for 80% of all economic output, virgin mining is declining fast, and agriculture has been totally disrupted by high-tech food factories. And manufacturing has changed completely. It’s all about recycling and upcycling, and raw materials barely exist.
Gone are the days of extracting vast quantities of underground ore and shipping them halfway around the world to be made into generic products; then shipping them back again to be sold to consumers, and then finally discarded. That was the model that fueled the ‘supercycle’ boom in commodities a decade ago. Mass production was a simple exercise – heat, beat and treat.
That was unsustainable, and now it’s unnecessary, and uneconomic. Steel and aluminium can be almost infinitely recycled, and mining companies have had to pivot to urban mining for new energy metals like lithium, nickel and cobalt. Mining the e-waste dumps, solar panel scrap yards and used battery depots is proving to be amazingly profitable. And it can all be done above ground.
Likewise, manufacturers don’t want slabs of steel and ingots of titanium; the preferred feedstocks for precision printing are bulk supplies of nanoparticles, specialized ‘inks’ for their multi-station 3D printing machines. And carbon composites, graphene, and biosynthetic materials have replaced steel, copper, and concrete in industries ranging from construction to automobiles.
Yes, the ‘supercycle’ is over for base commodities; but the circular economy is revving up. It’s the start of the ‘spin cycle’.