Copper is an industrially important metal that has been utilized by humankind for millennia for numerous products. Like all mining sectors, methods for extracting copper have historically been unsustainable, and the copper mining industry has committed to reducing its environmental impact in line with international agreements. This article will look at how the copper mining industry can become more sustainable and what progress is currently being made in achieving this aim.
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Current Sustainability of Copper Mining
The mining industry as a whole produces around 11% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, with the extraction of copper contributing to this through emissions from equipment, extraction, and transportation of raw resources for processing and manufacture.
Aside from carbon emissions, the extraction of raw copper ore causes environmental damage to surrounding ecosystems, as well as significant land and water use, marine pollution from mining operations, and toxins from industrial activities entering the environment. The continued extraction of virgin resources is also leading to increased scarcity.
International agreements such as the Paris Agreement and COP26, along with programs such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and the Responsible Minerals Initiative have placed demands on the copper mining industry to improve its sustainability.
Moreover, consumer and downstream brand demands are changing, with the public becoming keenly aware of the damage industry is causing and consequently seeking more transparency and visibility across the entire supply chain.
Improving sustainability is vital for the copper industry if it is to reduce its emissions and environmental damage in line with international agreements, inter-governmental programs, and consumer and manufacturing expectations.
The copper mining industry, and the mining industry as a whole, can play a significant part in reducing the impact of human activity on our environment and averting the supply problems that will arise from dwindling natural resources.
Challenges With Improving the Sustainability of the Copper Mining Industry
Like aluminum, copper is 100% recyclable, which provides an advantage to the copper industry in terms of sustainability and the circular economy concept. The path to complete sustainability in the global copper mining industry, however, is challenging.
First of all, there is the question of cost – implementing practices that promote sustainability may involve an initial economic outlay that will take time to realize returns for companies and governments.
Secondly, the need for new green equipment, infrastructure, and technologies such as AI, sensors, smart machinery, and so forth, which improve the operation of mines over their lifetime requires not only cost outlay but training for mine operators.
Furthermore, sustainability in the copper mining industry requires international frameworks and regulations in line with global sustainability goals and initiatives. As nations have the sovereign right to exploit their natural resources in accordance with their own environmental policies, in line with the principles of international law, action at the national level can be challenging. Sustainability is a global challenge that must still take account of the needs of individual nations.
A key part of the solution is to replace virgin resource exploitation with an increasing supply share of reclaimed and recycled copper, which also reduces the emissions and pollution associated with resource extraction. This, however, requires the expansion of current reclamation infrastructure and new technologies and practices. The challenges which present roadblocks to a green copper industry are many, but recent progress has proven promising.
Recent Progress in Copper Sustainability
There have been several innovative projects approaching the question of increasing sustainability in recent years. Chile is the largest copper producer in the world, with Codelco, the Chilean state-owned mining company, controlling around 19% of total global reserves. The company produced in excess of 1.6 million tons of copper last year, accounting for 10% of total global output.
Codelco has been increasingly emphasizing automation in its mining operations and fleets. The company has announced an agreement with Sandvik to introduce predictive analytics and fully automated loaders to its underground mining operations. The company is also working with Uptake to develop and implement an artificial intelligence (AI)-based system for the management and predictive maintenance of most of its infrastructure and equipment.
In 2019, 13 copper mining companies associated with the Chilean Mining Council voluntarily committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Chile’s targets are both local and global in scope. By 2023, it is predicted that more than half of the Chilean mining industry’s use of electricity will come from renewable sources. There are also targets for reducing direct emissions and increasing energy efficiency.
Mining giant BHP has increased its focus on “green” copper, which is reclaimed from waste streams. The company is aiming to become a world leader in sustainability and is additionally using data analytics to reduce copper supply chain emissions. The opening of a desalination plant to reduce the freshwater needs of the Escondida copper mine is another part of BHP’s sustainability plans.
In Germany, Aurubis is leading the way in the recycling of copper, with their Lünen plant using only waste materials as an input for processing, smelting, and refining processes.
Using Membrane Technology for Copper Mining in Chile
Writing in Cleaner Engineering and Technology, a team of authors has published research into using membrane technology for copper mining using Chile as a case study. The paper has explored the use of conventional and emerging membrane technologies for valorizing aqueous copper mining waste streams.
A comprehensive review of current and past literature has been provided by the authors which highlights the current state of research in the field. Focusing on mining wastewater reclamation, metal recovery, and power generation utilizing salinity gradients, the team has presented a synergic approach coherent with both zero-liquid discharge and circular economy paradigms.
The study seeks to address a critical issue with mining that affects its sustainability: the use of freshwater resources which are vital for drinking and sanitation. The authors have presented a comprehensive, vital contribution to current knowledge on the use of this technology to improve the sustainability of water use in the copper industry.
The Future of Sustainable Copper Mining
Achieving sustainability in the copper mining industry is challenging, but through innovation and international frameworks, agreements, and laws, it is achievable.
Multiple actors in the mining ecosystem are approaching the problem from numerous angles, providing novel solutions to the problems in the copper mining industry. If the mining industry is to meet its pledges on reducing GHG emissions and mitigating its environmental damage, sustainability must be at its core going forward.
References and Further Reading
The Warren Centre (2020) Zero Emission Copper Mine of the Future [online] copperalliance.org. Available at: https://copperalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Emissions-Copper-Mine-of-the-Future-Report.pdf
International Climate Initiative (2021) Sustainable Mining in Chile [online] international-climate-initiative.com. Available at: https://www.international-climate-initiative.com/
Lo, C (2019) Companies leading the way in copper mining tech [online] mining-technology.com. Available at: https://www.mining-technology.com/features/copper-mining-tech/
Santoro, S et al. (2021) Membrane technology for a sustainable copper mining industry: The Chilean paradigm, Cleaner Energy and Technology, 2 100091 [online] Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666790821000513
Malan, S (2021) How to Advance Sustainable Mining [online] iisd.org. Available at: https://www.iisd.org/articles/how-advance-sustainable-mining