It might seem that the mining industry by nature is not sustainable.
After all, unlike forestry or fishing for instance, once a mineral resource has been extracted it cannot regenerate naturally.
Nor can a mine be managed for sustainability in the same way as a forestry business can plant trees to replace those it has harvested, or to meet future demand.
When we talk about sustainable or responsible mining we are actually talking about reducing the totality of the mining industry’s negative impact on the natural environment and creating sustainability within our communities.
At Implats we have integrated sustainable development into our business strategy and moved beyond reacting to and complying with the guidelines as set out by various bodies, including the United Nations Global Compact of which we are a member.
Responsibility now lies at the heart of mines’ corporate strategy for both practical and ethical reasons.
Globally, environmental legislation is increasingly stringent, though levels of enforcement do vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Companies that cannot adapt will not be able to operate profitably, legally or efficiently.
The days when mines and other “dirty” industries could externalise their environmental costs onto the community while pocketing the profits are over.
Activists, governments and even shareholders will hold transgressors accountable; in law if necessary.
Mines also need what is known as a “social” licence to operate. They have to be seen as legitimate enterprises that are supported by their surrounding communities and stakeholders.
This is why Implats strives to be a responsible corporate citizen. We will do everything within our power to create lasting value while working toward a situation where we cause zero harm — to our employees, our physical environment and our society.
Mining is classified as a high impact industry on the environment.
We extract huge amounts of rock and earth, which can leave large open pits that need rehabilitation or shafts that need to be safely closed.
Mining and mineral processing also use large amounts of water and electricity and can impact air quality.
The outputs of mines — the extracted resources — also have environmental and social impacts because they make their way through the production cycle.
If you look around your home or office you will see that ultimately everything you have and use was either grown or mined. Take electricity for example.
Currently 94% of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal. The future may bring more renewable energy, but for now electricity usage and coal mining are directly linked.
While electricity producers can use technology to reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations, consumers can also use less electricity — and thus reduce demand for coal.
It is also worth remembering that households using electricity will have less environmental impact than those using alternate energy sources.
The key environmental challenge for coal mines however is to reduce their water usage and ensure that mines are rehabilitated once mining is complete.
Higher environmental standards can create new demand for specific minerals that reduce environmental damage.
For instance a growth of the platinum industry is closely linked to higher vehicle emission standards.
Platinum, along with its sister metals palladium and rhodium, are used in catalytic converters to control vehicle emissions.
The focus in all operating environments is to minimise the negative effect of our business on our natural resources and mitigate the potential consequences to our ecosystems and communities.
Mines can do this by optimising energy use; promoting sustainable water use and reducing pollution; reducing atmospheric emissions; ensuring effective land management and promoting biodiversity; and managing waste streams.
Mines monitor these operational impacts and manage for improvement.
At Implats this includes tracking and reducing carbon dioxide and SO2 emissions, water consumption, water recycling and energy consumption.
This is a step change for the industry as, for generations, South African mining relied upon access to cheap water and electricity, but now these pose significant strategic risks.
The challenge and importance of rehabilitating mines is illustrated by the acid mine drainage that affects many older mines around Johannesburg.
A lasting solution will require new technology and a closer partnership between government and mining.
Global experience shows that there can be huge social, environmental, health and economic consequences for mining communities when a mine reaches the end of its life.
Only a partnership between government and the mining industry can undertake the structured generational planning needed to create sustainable communities and alternative industries.
Sustainable communities are rooted in quality accommodation.
We need to further speed up the unwinding of the socially destructive system of housing migrant workers in hostels and build permanent communities for workers and their families.
Implats has a strong focus on encouraging home ownership.
In South Africa alone we have spent R1.3-billion on housing initiatives in the past three years with over 1 500 houses built and 5 000 legacy units converted into family and single accommodation in Rustenburg. Much more is needed, and we are building another 2 500 houses that our workers will own.
To create sustainable mining communities mines will also have to improve their support for education and health while increasing local procurement, skills development and support for small businesses through enterprise development.
To ensure stability and social cohesion these programmes must be visible to communities and effective at reducing poverty and inequality.
In future, a successful mining industry will require as much focus on creating a culture of care, respect, productivity and safety within the mines, as it will on building social and environmental sustainability around them.
Contents for this page was supplied and signed off by Implats