Vale Takes Mining into the Circular Economy

An intrapreneurial open innovation journey towards recycled quartz
Vale Quartz Project
Publ. date 10 Aug 2018
A first of its kind circular project was announced in June 2018, originating from the research from an engineer and executive MBA graduate at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland (EPFL). The project aims to help Vale, the world’s largest iron-ore mining company, transform residue into resource. It does that by extracting untapped value from its mine tailings by transforming it into new products. Concurrently, sand consumption around the world is increasing faster than supplies are naturally able to replenish, making it one of the most coveted resources behind fresh water. This forms a great opportunity for Vale as its mine tailings high in quartz can be used in many sand-based products. In a conversation with Finch & Beak, project initiator and leader Emile Scheepers explains how thinking differently about the product life cycle allowed him to uncover this new opportunity.

A unique circular economy story

Before the start of his Executive MBA at the EPFL, Emile Scheepers, an engineer working for Vale, the Brazilian multinational mining company, was tasked with preparing a pitch for a business idea with growth potential. “The core of my idea was to do something with the tailings – something that has always been there as a result of the production process. There is value inherent in the tailings, but I wanted to figure out how we could use it, what the product is and what it is not. We discovered that some of our residues were so rich in quartz that it became attractive to the sand market,” Emile explains. A three-minute presentation convinced four professionals to join him and work on his business idea for the duration of the EMBA program.

After eight months of iteration and refinement, Emile explained, the business case became clear when laying out the idea on the Business Model Canvas, a tool to map the nine building blocks of a business model. Giving substance to the notion of “one man’s waste is another man’s treasure,” the final idea was to use existing tailings or residue material from Vale’s iron-ore mining operations and transform it into quartz surfaces (also called engineered stone), an alternative to natural stone like granite. Indeed, Vale produces huge volumes of a quartz-rich residue that combined with resin can be used to replace natural quartz in the production of Quartz Surfaces. The final product can for instance be used to make composite surfaces for kitchen and bathroom countertops.

New business opportunities from a coveted commodity

When presenting his idea, Emile put a lot of effort in demonstrating how strong the business case was. Indeed, the market for quartz surfaces countertops is valued at an estimated 3 billion dollars in the United States alone, which makes up around 10% of the overall countertop market. The key point for Vale was that the volume of tailings produced every year made it a very attractive value proposition. It also helped that this project was clearly aligned with Vale’s strategic plan, with sustainability being one of its three principles, in addition to competitiveness and financial strength.

However, Vale’s tailings have more potential than just for Quartz Surfaces, and at larger volumes, too. As Emile was working on his project, a UN Report on Sand Mining was published, finding that the use of sand greatly exceeded its natural renewal rate. As recently as September 2017, the influential journal Science also warned the world of similar consequences.

Sand is the basis of many products such as glass bottles, concrete and cement, and even smartphones. So, Vale’s quartz-rich residue opens up many additional opportunities for supplying other industries such as in construction or landscaping and in the sports industry, on golf courses and beach volleyball courts. Ultimately, Vale decided to pilot the project that Emile is currently spearheading in his role as Leader of Customer Service Solutions (Europe & MENA).

Turning the idea into reality: three intrapreneurial lessons

Although the idea of quartz surfaces itself was not a new concept, convincing Vale to support and implement this idea was not an easy feat. After completing his EMBA in 2014, Emile returned to Vale and to turn his idea into reality, he embarked on a true intrapreneurial journey. To inject his idea into a big established company such as Vale, Emile recalls three critical steps:

  1. Motivating the right people in the right places
    Building a group of ‘believers’ was crucial in getting the Vale Quartz project off the ground – Emile acknowledges it took a while for him to get there. 
  2. Repetition, repetition, repetition
    Emile advises everyone who wants to launch a new idea to make it a habit to pitch and continuously practice your pitch in order to sell the project internally. A strong collaboration with communication manager Nadine Blaser helped Emile to get to the point by using less words.
  3. Patience, passion & timing
    Emile finally stresses the importance of understanding that it takes time to create change within a big organization and that you have to respect someone’s decision to not involve themselves in a new project. Don’t take the no’s personally – learning to deal with rejection is also key in moving forward.

Vale’s Quartz Project is a great example of the benefits of the circular economy: it opens up potential new ideas for the company by transforming a residue into a resource from which multiple benefits could be derived, and it allows the company to further reduce its environmental impact.

Want to explore the business opportunities of the circular economy?


Inspired by the innovative Vale Quartz Project but don’t know where to begin? The Circular Economy Sprint can help guide you to unleash the potential of the circular economy for your organization within just 7 weeks. Please contact us at for more information.

Image source: Pixabay/Skitterphoto. This image is for illustrative purposes only and does not display the Vale Quartz product.

About Nikkie Vinke

Seasoned advisor in ESG benchmarking, sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. |

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