Why is sustainability such an important consideration in mining?
Sustainability has always been a key consideration in the mining industry and will continue to shape activity today and beyond.
Tord Svensson, head of TOMRA Sorting Mining
Activity in the mining industry is integral to modern life, with minerals and commodities mined across the world playing a crucial role the way in which both businesses and consumers operate.
As with any industry providing essential products and services, a significant amount of attention is placed on its processes and their impact from both an environmental and economic perspective.
Figures compiled by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development division show that, in the 20th century, extraction of construction minerals increased by 34 times, while that of ores and industrial minerals increased 27 times, which significantly outpaced the quadrupling of the global population and even the 24-fold increase in worldwide GDP.
The dramatic increase in activity naturally placed strain on resources and also created questions around sustainability, but the fact is that sustainable practices have long been an important consideration in mining, stretching back more than 50 years.
In an industry where developments take place across decades and decisions being made now could only come to fruition in half a century, it is essential that the potential impact of any move is taken into account.
A global report carried out by professional services firm Deloitte into the constant challenges and constraints affecting sustainability in mining found that that the ever-increasing demand for mined resources remains a major concern, as well as the consumption of resources such as energy and water, which are required throughout the extraction process.
Increasing pollution generated by the extraction process must also be factored into thinking, with these principles applying to both large-scale, multinational corporates, as well as smaller-scale operations.
In many cases, the sustainability of extraction can vary greatly depending on the industry, but regardless of the processes and techniques being employed and implemented, these operations are still associated with negative environmental and social impacts in some markets.
The ever-present challenge for the sector is strengthening the relationship with local communities and reinforcing the importance of mining to both revenue and employment in many nations, particularly developing countries.
The non-renewable nature of mined resources is also at odds with sustainability, which further illustrates how crucial the efficient use of resources for development remains.
Of course, questions around how to maximize the developmental benefits of mining while also contributing to both environmental and social sustainability are nothing new.
It was given the spotlight in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, agreed at the 2002 UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, where three priority areas were identified, including addressing the environmental, economic, health and social impacts and benefits of mining throughout the entire lifecycle, encompassing issues such as the health and safety of workers.
Another key aim outlined was to enhance the participation of stakeholders, including local communities and – just as crucially – fostering sustainable mining practices through the provision of financial, technical and capacity-building support to all countries.
At its core, the practices that will be central to maintaining and improving the sustainability of global mining is the management and reduction of energy and resources used in extracting materials.
Although new sites are being discovered and means of extracting materials are being developed, the nature of the work can have a significant number of side-effects on the surrounding area both in the short and long term. This necessitates the use of the most effective possible methods and machinery, as well as approaches to reducing water and energy use.
Minimizing the use of water that is diverted for mining activity – and can impact both the quantity and quality of water available downstream – has proven highly effective in countries such as Canada, where figures from the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy show that water intake used in mining fell by a third in just ten years.
Reducing energy consumption is also paramount if the impact of the mining industry is to be mitigated; it is estimated that three per cent of the world’s energy is used to mine natural commodities, while land disruption remains a key issue as land that could potentially be used for vegetation may be spoiled.
The use of technology that can play a key role in reducing the industry’s impact on the planet in both the long and short term is therefore paramount, and TOMRA’s range of sorting technology is playing a crucial role in this.
Sensors are able to recognize the target material according to typical characteristics such as color, atomic density, transparency and conductivity and then selectively extract it using a pulse of pressurized air to minimize waste.
A strong emphasis is placed on reducing eventual water and energy consumption when designing all TOMRA machinery, and sensor-based material handling sorters are no exception.
Sorting has a direct effect on reducing the downstream energy consumption in relation to the amount of mass removed by the sorter. If a sorting machine removes 15 per cent of waste by mass, then downstream processes will use approximately 15 per cent less energy, and the same applies to water consumption.
However, processing a ton of sorted ore will consume the same amount of energy as unsorted material; the key factor being that you will be able to produce the same amount of final concentrate treating less material.
Sustainability continues to be at the heart of the mining industry, and maintaining this focus will ensure that new methods of extraction are being complemented by sustainable processes that help to maintain the integrity of the area being mined and its local population and offer tangible business benefits.