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Tipping point for mine waste? A conversation with Anita Parbhakar-Fox

  • 20 June 2024

Smarter mining is going to help unlock billions of dollars of “mine waste” value and materially move the industry’s ESG dial, according to Anita Parbhakar-Fox.

One of the world’s leading voices on the hot topic of mine waste transformation through characterisation, the University of Queensland associate professor says the inaugural Mining, Metals and the Circular Economy conference in Sydney, Australia, in October this year is an important follow-up to a packed-out Australian Mine Waste Symposium in February.

“We had 160 people in the room focused on how exactly we can change the narrative of mine waste from liability to asset,” Parbhakar-Fox says.

“At the Sydney event the topics invariably will pivot away from the technical towards strategic business case development and policy development to help unlock these opportunities.

“I see both 2024 events being valuable as we look to advance in this new mining sector.”

Parbhakar-Fox, who heads the Mine Waste Transformation through Characterisation (MIWATCH) group at the UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, is speaking in Sydney with another internationally respected leader in the field, BHP’s head of resource engineering excellence, Kerry Turnock.

Both have addressed the importance of multi-scale mine production material characterisation in determining mine waste secondary prospectivity. They have also been among the experienced voices imploring the industry to lift its game on early deposit characterisation to enable improved waste reduction planning from day one of projects.

“Reprocessing of waste is not a new idea,” Parbhakar-Fox says.

“Many companies undertake this as part of their operating model and, indeed, companies in Africa and more recently Australia have had waste reprocessing as their primary company focus.

“In the last five years a whole swathe of new miners and/or start-ups have been established with the focus of reprocessing waste and restoring environments, and the larger companies have invested more into evaluating their tailings as a resource.

“The past five years have seen acceleration in this sector without a doubt.

“The failure of the Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil was probably the catalyst.

“That coupled with an increased thirst for critical minerals.

“The mindset towards total deposit characterisation will be pivotal in improving waste reduction.

“I truly believe that if we improve our characterisation practices – with improved resolution of mineralogy and chemistry data – to enable us to understand the total volume of mined materials, then valorisation or by-product opportunities could be better identified, leading to mine waste reduction and ultimately, helping us move towards net-zero mine waste.

“And if we can demonstrate that the mining industry can better manage its waste and is working towards eradicating its closure footprint, I think societal concerns around opening new mining operations may be reduced or alleviated.

“We can start to change the conversation around companies or governments having to pay out to environmentally manage sites post-closure in perpetuity.

“As we increase mining outputs this challenge is going to exponentially grow”

“There are many benefits to adopting a predictive, rather than reactive, approach to managing mine waste.

“This challenge is not going away anytime soon. In fact, as we increase mining outputs it’s only going to exponentially grow.”

Parbhakar-Fox says technology, innovation, policy and market forces are all shifting the industry’s mine-waste valorisation focus, which can clearly feed momentum around converting a massive waste problem into various opportunity streams.

“EY [risks and opportunities for mining and metals] surveys continue to identify this as a leading risk for the industry.

“Financiers are demanding better.

“With countries like Australia looking to grow revenue from its circular economy sector, considering the volume of mine waste we have and the potential for it to contain high value commodities like gold, there is a chance to grow quickly, but only if proper characterisation is performed to determine how to recover that value.

“The circular economy has been discussed in the UK and Europe for many years now so in many ways, in comparison to Europe, we are a little behind.

“But we are fast catching up.

“Geoscience Australia, RMIT and UQ published the Atlas of Australian mine waste last year as a first tool for explorers to understand where potential reprocessing targets are.

“MIWATCH has been working with many of Australia’s geological surveys to publish pre-competitive data reports relating to secondary prospectivity of mine waste.

“In comparison to South America we seem to be a little ahead. Peru, Chile and Brazil are keen to establish projects in this area.

“So we have lessons to learn, and to teach.”

Federal and state government support for mine waste projects is evidence of a deeper public policy shift in Australia, says Parbhakar-Fox.

“Governments are now offering explorers grants to explore their waste,” she says.

“I think we are seeing government encouraging innovation.

“Just this week, CSIRO are over in Canada talking about Australia’s efforts in mine waste reprocessing, so certainly, on a global platform, Australia is making it known that we are looking to develop projects that will deliver metals from waste:  greener metal if you will.

“Cobalt from Australian mine waste may be perceived as more ethically sourced than from the DRC, for example.

“Really, I think we are only just getting started in this area and the more open conversations we can have, the better.”

Anita Parbhakar-Fox
Anita Parbhakar-Fox


Rock stockpiles in north-west Queensland, Australia
Rock stockpiles in north-west Queensland, Australia

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