As mining companies encounter a world that is increasingly hostile to their efforts and, despite that, in desperate need of their services, sustainable operations have become an essential part of doing business. An example of the burgeoning world of sustainable strategies, mines are taking it upon themselves to cut costs, reduce waste, and increase profit margins. From an outside perspective it does seem incongruous to apply sustainability principles to a process of taking a limited resource out of the earth. An inescapable fact, to be sure, as the core principle of mining remains the same from back in the pick-and-shovel days. But what the George Hearst’s of yesteryear could not have envisioned was the sustainably minded changes that were going to become core tenets of many mining companies’ best practices. The adoption of automation, replacement of diesel with electric vehicles, and advancement in solar energy marks a start to the sustainable continuation of the mining industry.
However, for all its efforts, the mining world still finds itself at an impasse, particularly companies involved with the acquisition of copper. Many solutions to lowering carbon emissions require copper for batteries and other electrical appliances. Automation costs jobs, and while upscaling and retraining are possible to keep people employed, there is no guarantee that this will happen, at least in the U.S., in states that are non-union. Demand for copper and other non-fuel minerals has surged forward in the past twenty years due to increased technological innovation as well as the effects of both a rising population and climbing per capita income. Because of this, the copper mining industry faces a critical juncture. Either they continue as if dwindling resources, environmental considerations, and climate change are non-factors, or they do as many already have: change. This is not a call to end mining wholesale, since, as previously stated, we need the minerals more than ever. Rather, in assessing our planet’s finite resources, it is essential to strategize how we can make the most out of what we have.
The first major avenue to explore is membrane technology that seeks to repurpose “tailings ponds” and revitalize the sustainable mining endeavor. A tailings pond is a collection of mine waste (tailings) that take the forms of large bodies of water. Due to their toxic nature, they pollute the surrounding areas and wreak havoc on the local water supply. But with nanofiltration and reverse osmosis membranes, a solution is in sight. A paper by Santoro et al. describes the process through which membranes can aid in the “recovery of raw materials, reclamation of water,” as well as greater salinity and gradient power. While not a perfect solution and one that needs careful implementation, this technique will help mining companies meet the current demand without unduly sacrificing the needs of future generations.
A second, alternative, solution has the distinct advantage of killing two birds with one stone. Electronic refuse, or e-waste, is an increasing problem worldwide. Initially posing the issue of being difficult to dispose of due to the potential contaminants exposed in the products during traditional methods of trash handling, this problem is made worse with the planned obsolescence of technology products. An estimated 50 M tons of electronic waste was produced in this last year alone. While that may not seem like much in terms of the grand total of trash that is produced annually, these numbers add up. With ore grades, or density of desired materials, diminishing rapidly in mines across the world, the problem of e-waste presents itself as an opportunity for copper distributors and recycling startups to pick up where large mining corporations leave off. Taking the materials from discarded electronic materials and repurposing them presents itself as an up-and-coming cottage industry. Rubicon Global and TerraCycle are examples of companies that have seen the opportunity that our waste crisis has created and they are staking their claim. The word upcycling has taken on a connotation of beer-can “art” and t-shirts cut into smaller, trendier t-shirts, but it may turn out to be the saving grace of one of the industrial economy’s cornerstones.
Overall, there is still lots more to be done to ensure that the land being mined is respected, no potentially useful material is going to waste, and negative environmental impact is mitigated whenever possible. But with these, and more, sustainable mining methods developing at this moment, hope is beginning to float.