What you can do to reduce Mining's Environmental Impacts

There are a number of ways to reduce the environmental impacts of mining, including:

  1. Reducing the consumption of minerals

    People can reduce the consumer goods they use or the content of minerals in manufactured processes can be reduced. For example, instead of building more cars, we could rely more on public transit.
  2. The efficiency of manufacturing processes can be increased to reduce the amount of new minerals required

    For example, structural beams might be designed to be equally strong while using less steel.
  3. Substitution of other materials and processes with more environmentally friendly materials and processes

    For example, plastics might be used instead of metal to build appliances. Or biomass can be used instead of uranium to produce energy.
  4. Using recycled materials instead of mined materials

    For example, if tin cans are efficiently recycled, less material needs to be mined to make cans.
  5. Improving environmental performance at mines

    Mines can be designed so that they produce less waste or use less toxic chemicals.
  6. Legislation and regulations to reduce environmental impacts can be enacted and enforced

    Governments can require mines to adopt increasingly effective environmental procedures and invoke penalties for failure to comply.
  7. Cleaning up abandoned mine sites

    Companies and governments can be held accountable for abandoned sites and be required to carry out an environmental cleanup.
  8. Economic measures

    like tax shifting, can be introduced to provide incentives for practices like product substitution and disincentives for poor environmental performance.

Reducing the consumption of minerals

Mining produces materials used in manufacturing all kinds of products, from consumer goods to fertilizers to energy supplies. During the 20th Century, per capita resource consumption rose fourfold. Today, the production of goods and services requires, on average, over eighty tons of natural resources annually per person, including materials from mining. By 2050, consumption of natural resources is expected to rise by an additional factor of three.

One way to limit the impact of mining on the environment is to consume less, so that less minerals are needed to build products like cars, appliances, electronics, etc. This can be accomplished through more efficient resource use, but also by simply using less and recycling more.

The following sites provide resources on reducing consumption:

Improving the efficiency of manufacturing processes

The World Resources Institute is conducting research on resource and materials use. WRI has been working to develop databases and indicators that document the flow of materials through industrial economies. Material flows analyses track the physical flows of natural resources through extraction, production, fabrication, use and recycling, and final disposal, accounting for losses along the way.

The goal of the materials flow studies is to develop new thinking, new metrics, and new management tools that will help bring about the transition to more efficient and less environmentally-harmful patterns of material use in modern societies.
  • For more information visit the WRI site

Material Substitution

A long list of environmental ills, from toxic pollutants to deforestation to species loss to climate change, are due in part to the gargantuan appetite for materials, especially in industrial countries. Recognizing that "business-as-usual" practices are unsustainable, some nations, international organizations, and environmental groups are calling for major reductions in materials use-often by as much as 90 percent.

Incremental efficiency gains will not do the job. Instead, an imaginative remaking of the industrial world-one that aligns economies with the natural environment that supports them is the sustainable way forward.

Nations and businesses are discovering ways to use materials more intelligently-to provide the goods and services people want using much less wood, metal, stone, plastic, and other materials. By reducing wasteful use, and by steering production toward durable goods that are easy to reuse, remanufacture, or recycle, a few pioneering firms are recasting the role of materials in our lives. Some businesses have even shifted out of manufacturing and become purveyors of services-dramatically lowering levels of materials use. This creative trend stems from a recognition of the environmental costs of excessive materials use.

Using recycled materials

Mining exacts a severe and sometimes irreversible toll on public health, water and air quality, fish and wildlife habitat, and community interests. If we hope to decrease our reliance on this activity while meeting our current and future metal needs, we must look at getting more of our raw materials from secondary sources-the only other terrestrial supply currently available. In large part, the failure to use recycled materials can be attributed to the distortionary subsidies for virgin minerals extraction, which make it cheaper to dig up new minerals than to reuse aboveground stocks.

Recycling has a number of advantages. For example, it takes far less energy to recycle discarded materials than to extract, process, and refine metals from ore. It takes 95% less energy to produce aluminum from recycled materials rather than from bauxite ore. Recycling copper takes seven times less energy than processing ore; recycled steel uses three-and-a-half times less.

Improving environmental performance

Mining moves enormous quantities of earth; altogether, it strips more of the Earth's surface each year than natural erosion by rivers does. Very little of this material is actually used-for example, on average, some 220 tons of earth are excavated to produce just a ton of copper. Mining also uses large amounts of chemicals in processing and results in significant emissions to air and water. By systematically examining environmental impacts and adopting measures to mitigate these impacts, it is possible to make mining less destructive of the environment.

Better legislation and regulations

Better regulations and better enforcement of existing regulations are keys to improving environmental performance in mining.