Achieving a circular economy will require much more efficient mining and processing, much more recycling of metals, much more reprocessing and recycling of mine waste, particularly tailings dumps and dams. So highlighted Finnish Geological Survey organisation GTK Circular Economy Solutions Unit head Jouko Nieminen in an interview with Mining Weekly Online, at a fringe event of the Investing in African Mining Indaba 2023, in Cape Town, last week.
“In order to have a truly circular economy world, we will need more mining, to get more metals into that economy,” he pointed out. “We’re going to have to have tens, even hundreds, of new mines worldwide. There is a clear and very large need for increased activity in exploration and in the opening of new mines, to support the circular economy.”
But a new approach was needed to mining and minerals processing. Currently, in many mining operations, 98% of the material extracted was ‘waste’ and only 2% was ‘valuable’. Miners would have to consider how to extract everything valuable from their ore, and not just their target metal. This, he noted, was already being done in certain places, but whether or not mines did this was determined by economics.
“We need to develop zero waste mining processes,” he affirmed. Ideally, all waste should be recycled, leaving no tailings. But that would not be easy, in practice. As much waste as possible should be recycled, remaining waste should be separated into its different factions and stored separately, while extracted rocky material should be put back into the mine tunnels, when mining had concluded. “A lot of work still has to be done on this.”
Of course, existing wastes had to be recycled. Tailings had to be reprocessed to retrieve metals. “This is not the whole solution, but it is part of the solution.”
A hugely important thing was clean water, he stressed. Mining and processing involved a lot of water. This water would have to be so thoroughly recycled so that when it was released it would be almost 100% clean. GTK’s research unit, GTK Mintec, was doing a lot of research into this very issue, among other things.
“A strength in the Nordic countries is that there is a lot of technical and chemical knowledge,” observed non-profit industry organisation Mining Finland CEO Lasse Moilanen, also in an exclusive interview with Mining Weekly Online, at the same fringe event of the African Mining Indaba. “We are developing solutions to problems such as tailings treatment and water treatment. GTK Mintec does small-scale solutions, and then, together with mining companies, scales them up to bigger solutions.”
Further, Finnish mining companies were working together to help find solutions to these problems. And, because of Finland’s small size, in demographic terms, it was easy for Finnish miners to tap into relevant expertise from the country’s other industrial sectors, such as chemicals and papermaking.