Alternative Use of Tailings and Waste
Turning The Mine Tailings and Waste Challenge into Business and Social Opportunities
Mining waste is one of the largest industrial waste streams generated globally, estimated to exceed 100 billion tons every year. If not managed properly, mining waste can generate pollution and result in costly catastrophic consequences and environmental disasters. Australia produces large volumes of mine waste across a range of commodities, as tailings, waste rock and pyrometallurgical wastes.
In Western Australia (WA) alone, there are more than 800 tailings storage facilities (TSFs), which can have major social and environmental impacts and represent a liability for mining companies. This is a growing problem with the volume of tailings expected to double by 2035, as the transition to renewable energy increases the demand for critical minerals. One way to better manage mine waste is repurposing it and turning it into valuable resources. Applying circular economy (CE) principles to mine waste valorisation, WA can turn the tailings and waste challenge into a business opportunity, while reducing the environmental footprint of mining operations.
Mine tailings can contain concentrations of critical metals and minerals currently in short supply, including cobalt, rare earth elements, platinum group metals, vanadium, and indium. The value of precious, critical, and strategic metals contained in TSFs worldwide was estimated to exceed US$3.4 trillion, with the potential value contained in one single tailing repository estimated to exceed hundreds of millions of euros.
The residual mineral fraction in the tailings can also be valorised, for example, upcycled into high-value products such as raw materials for the construction and ceramic industry, low-carbon geopolymer concrete and mineral fertilisers, or downcycled for backfilling, construction materials and carbon capture (mineral carbonation).
Creating a CE for mine residue, including tailings, creates cost-effective benefits through offsetting raw material requirements, reducing the carbon footprint associated with obtaining them, and reducing the volumes of waste and related environmental impacts. It also delivers social benefits, boosting job creation, manufacturing self-sufficiency and opportunities for regional growth.
Supporting Impactful Research
Transforming our state’s approach to mining waste management, supporting a sustainable, low-waste, circular economy for mining.
MRIWA’s focus area “Alternative Use of Tailings and Waste” was established in 2022 to help tackle the mine waste challenge in WA, by enabling and supporting research and innovation into reusing and recycling mining waste for the benefit of the state.
The overarching goal of the focus area is to enable and accelerate scientific advances and technology development for mining waste valorisation in WA and encourage a CE approach where mining by-products are valued as a resource. The aim is to create an impactful program of research to transform our state’s approach to mining waste management, creating capability in the workforce, economic opportunity for the community, and supporting regional development.
Current MRIWA Activities
A 2023 Foundation Strategy has been developed to accelerate mine waste valorisation in Western Australia, leveraging the principles of circular economy.
The foundation strategy is preliminary work leading to a robust long-term strategy for Western Australia. This work will allow a better understanding of challenges and opportunities for mining waste valorisation in WA, while also creating solid foundations for future developments.
The Focus Area strategic foundation initiatives include:
- WA mine waste characterisation program.
- WA circular economy assessment and strategy.
- Stakeholder Engagement program.
- Seminars and workshops.
- Demonstration Research Projects.
New research projects will commence over the next few months in 2023. Discussions are also underway to develop strategic scientific programs for the focus area.
MRIWA is also working closely with the Department of Water, Environment and Regulation (DWER) and the Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) to ensure we harness existing resources and capability in the state to valorise mine waste, all within a regulatory acceptable framework and in agreement with the state’s environmental policies and goals.
If you would like to know more, join our Focus Area Working Group, get involved or have potential research project opportunities you would like to discuss, please contact Dr. Laura Machuca Suarez
Page was last reviewed 18 January 2023