circular economy sustainability

A non-renewable resource stock check

It’s always a risky business putting depletion dates to anything, because someone might find huge new reserves tomorrow. But it is a useful exercise nonetheless, a reminder that we live on a finite planet, and are dependent on resources that are non-renewable. I’ve written about it before, but this is a neater presentation than most.

By the time I reach old age, I am likely to have seen the end of oil, copper and silver and various rare metals. Gas may be on its way out. There will be consequences to this – rising prices, shortages, new technologies and desperate measures. Some think we’ll be mining asteroids or the sea bed. We’ll definitely be mining old landfill sites outside big cities. Hopefully we’ll have a design revolution and cradle to cradle manufacturing so that metals are re-used instead of being thrown away.

Personally, I’m not content to wait and see. I’d rather write about and campaign for that circular materials economy, and for good stewardship of the resources left. It’s one of the reasons this site exists.

(The graphic from a BBC education site, which for reasons unbeknownst, isn’t available in the UK. I got it from here.)


  1. I’ve never really bought the “we are running out of minerals” thing. We still have the same number of iron, copper or silver atoms on the planet (give of take a few we fire into space). That chart is based on reserves currently economical to extract. So there are other reserves that we can refine if the price rises, which it would if the existing suppliers are running low. (Canada’s shale oil was known about for decades, just wasn’t worth extracting in the era of cheap oil).

    That is leaving aside substitutions. I remember reading in the 1970’s that by the 21st century photography would be dead as we would have run out of silver for the film. Now of course we take more pictures than ever and hardly any silver is used since they are on digital cameras. That change wasn’t forced by silver shortages either.

    Alternatively the extraction technology can change. Copper we used to get it from copper sulfates and sulphides. A mountain of copper oxides was just useless dirt. Then SX EW technology was introduced and that useless mountain of dirt became copper reserves. Not forgetting that mining companies don’t need more than 30-40 years of reserves so if they have them, they don’t spend the large amounts of money looking for more until they need them.

    Ultimately these atoms are still here once we have used them. Most steel made in Europe is made from scrap, not new iron ore. Of course fossil resources are finite and since Earth is finite there must be ultimate constraints but I don’t think we are near them in a meaningful way.

    Global warming is the environmental challenge that mankind must face, not running out of dirt.

    1. Surely, it hasn’t been about running out of ‘dirt’, but more about its conversion, which makes us ‘rob’ it from the natural systems which need it to support us. So that, we don’t run out of minerals etc but we dismantle it for our constructions, and cannot return it, or allow natural systems to survive without it, as quickly as we dismantle and convert it. That’s how i see it. I’m happy to be corrected by better understanding?

      1. Not sure what good iron ore is doing anything underground. The Earth is continually destroying crust, we aren’t really doing much but moving it around. The carbon from fossil fuels is another matter.

  2. Thanks. Yes, the earth acts according to its own processes. But, is it true to say that ‘we aren’t really doing much but moving it around’? It is easier to see the carbon problem now that we have information and evidence. I think there are relationships we are not aware of, and we proceed like a blunderbuss with the earth. But, not wishing to be seen as an alarmist, I’ll leave it just that I’m not as confident as you, and perhaps we are chasing our tails with its inevitable consequences gradually becoming clearer! Unless, of course, your confidence is founded on more evidence?

  3. Establishing the carbon problem with global warming was based on our understanding of physics. The fact that carbon dioxide acts like a greenhouse trapping heat was well understood by physicists. The fact we were emitting CO2 via burning fossil fuels made it likely that this process would be occurring in the Earth’s atmosphere and geologists and climate scientists have been gathering evidence of this.

    I don’t think there is a physical process similar to the greenhouse effect that is known to occur with mining other than the CO2 emissions from the power used. Now there could of course be relationships we aren’t aware of, but mankind has been digging up ores for thousands of years so I’d have thought there would eb evidnece of such relationships by now.

    To proceed on the precautionary principle that something bad just might happen despite lack of evidence that it will is to do nothing ever. It would suggest we should have remained as hunter gatherers and not smelted that first bit of copper and tin into bronze. Then we would have never been more than a few million souls without the fantastic knowledge mankind has amassed. Not to mention most children dying before their fifth birthday.

  4. I’m finally tired at 2.45am so I hope I can do justice to a reply. I asked if it is true to say we are not doing much but moving it around. You have shown that you have reason to think so and insufficient reason not to carry on moving it. Firstly, I was not suggesting this should not occur, but merely wishing to question your confident statement as I would . rather not proceed at the new blunderbuss rate that modern man does, with much greater effects than previously, and no time to see consequences till it has damaged much(directly or indirectly), and then all too often, produced another issue/need. Therefore, by just liking to go at a slower rate does not mean one wants to do nothing. If we rushed ahead less we could perhaps have more relevant benefits overall, and still have the truly beneficial ones, whilst even having more time to consider the effects on one another globally, and finding a better solution for all. As I say, I don’t know, but I’d like to see more of our confidence brought into question by those with no vested interest.

  5. Mining and quarrying can be damaging, but moving deposits of minerals such as copper and iron from one place to another doesn’t unsettle any natural processes I’m aware of. Obviously all our activity needs to be done sensitively and with one eye on the unfolding consequences.

    And yes Devonchap, the markets respond and technologies change, which is why I don’t place too much importance on these sorts of tables. What’s important is not second-guessing some presumed end-point for a resource, but getting ahead of depletion. That’s why oil depletion matters. By any calculation we have 40 years of oil left – but taking it seriously now means we can manage the transition beyond it rather than bumble along as victims of rising prices or resource conflicts.

    These sorts of stats shouldn’t be cause for hand-wringing, but for innovation, smarter resource use, and cradle to cradle design.

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