By Dr Robin Branson PhD, MBA, BSc. (Hons), Director Australian Industrial Ecology Network

The last article about industrial ecology (IE) in mining described the strategy of a circular economy (CE). I suggested three scales on which CEs exists and that the mini scale, being the most localised, is where organisation and especially individuals can really make a difference.

I also suggested that contributing to sustainable development might appeal to people in mining, but how?

Another strategy in the IE arsenal is industrial symbiosis (IS), where resources, generally in the form of waste discarded at an ‘industrial entity’ (the producer) become an input to the production process of another industrial entity (the user). In this context, ‘industrial entity’ means specifically a site at which something is manufactured or processed. Whether a producer or user, a potential ‘symbiont’ could be any sort of mine site, a factory, a food processor, a piggery, a horticultural farm, or a commercial forest. Although IS might resemble traditional recycling, there is a significant difference. IS does not operate in established markets for ‘tradable’ goods where prices are readily determined and terms of trade are well understood.

Aside from the absence of conventional markets, IS relationships are characteristically unique, particularly regarding the specification of materials, the motivation for IS and commercial arrangements. Nevertheless, as a general proposition, the strategy can be applied to myriad resources that are ‘usable’ and should therefore not be dumped in landfill, discharged to sewer, or into some natural waterbody or the atmosphere.

Reducing the cost of disposal to landfill is generally the principal motivation for IS, particularly in economies where such costs are significant. Returning resources to a productive economy, however, is the much more fundamental objective of IS. The exigence of conserving (finite) resources is emphasised as a counterpoint to the observation that given the expanse of mine sites generally, dumping waste on them may not seem any sort of problem at all.

Given that observation, the primary motivation for deploying IS in mining is to recover resource. To do that successfully, two attributes are critically important.

Above all, any IS project must have a ‘champion’: a person, or a small group of people, who will drive the project through any adversity. A champion is so crucial that, without one, a project is probably not worth starting. On the other hand, given the tenacity to persevere, a champion relentlessly pursuing even the germ of an idea, will likely be successful. I should mention, perhaps, that a (fatalistic) sense of humour helps enormously as there will be abundant frustration and every reason under the sun for other people to obstruct progress.

Top management on site, if not higher up the organisation, must be willing to support the champion, if not actually facilitate the project by formally committing the resources required. A committed champion will likely develop the project irrespective of managerial attitude, but it is undoubtedly better to have top management on side.

The project itself will determine the breadth and depth of the resources required. What should be done and how to do it are issues than can be canvassed here. The first one is relatively easy, needing some mulling by anyone on site, or anywhere further up the chain of command to top management in head office. The approach is to seek stuff that is being, or has been, discarded and think about whether it might be useful for some purpose. If so, it should be recovered and probably could be. The materials from which a product is made, or the chemical composition of a substance, often provide clues to how stuff may be reused.

A point worth considering is that mine sites can be ‘users’ in an IS relationship. There may be materials or other resources needed on site, which might be obtained more beneficially through IS than by means of conventional trade.

‘How to do it’ is generally the more difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes demoralising part of IS. There are so many ways of tackling IS in practice, but one thing is for sure: ‘collaboration’ is the way to go! Collaboration between symbionts, including any intermediaries involved, however motivated, is been the foundation of every project.

An idea that may serve as an example of how IS can happen was prompted by a conversation I had recently with someone who supplied huge quantities of soft-faced sledge hammers to long-wall coal miners. The hammers do not last long and are dumped. Assuming this is true, it would seem that good quality steel is being discarded, which should and probably could be reused, even if only in an arc furnace. The first step is to find someone who will use the metal within ‘economic proximity’ of the mine site. Transport would likely be a significant component of economic proximity and might be accomplished, at least in part, by back-loading the discarded hammers on the vehicle that delivers the new ones. Other options for transport may also be feasible and, of course, handling and storage on site must also be sorted out. So much depends on relative monetary values, geography and costs.

Segue to the topic of energy from waste. In February 2018, the AIEN will be hosting its third Forum on ‘Energy from Waste’. Readers of TAM would, of course, be most welcome to join the Forum but in any case, the next article in this series will make a short detour to report on its proceedings and comment on energy from waste in relation to mining.

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