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African mining should take a leaf out of the Chile book

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Tyre shreds at Kal Tire’s facility in Chile. There are more than 500,000 tonnes (t) of scrapped Off-The-Road (OTR) mining tyres being stockpiled for recycling in Chile. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

African mining should take a leaf out of the Chile book

The mining industry in Africa will benefit greatly by taking a leaf out of Chile’s book on the circular economy, managing the environment and water resources, and recycling old mining tyres.

By Leon Louw owner of WhyAfrica and editor of the WhyAfrica magazine

After travelling to Antofagasta, a prime mining hotspot in Chile, South America, a month before undertaking the 2023 WhyAfrica Road Trip through the major mining regions of southern Africa, the lessons for Africa’s mining sector are clear: ensure sustainability through pro-active management of future impacts and control current and historic waste through a well-established circular economy.

Antofagasta is a port city in northern Chile’s dry Atacama Desert. The region is known for the massive amounts of copper and lithium it produces. Being two of the most sought-after commodities in the world today, these critical minerals are being unearthed at a break-neck speed in Chile and in southern African countries like Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Namibia and Botswana.

Chile is the world’s largest producer of copper and six of the 10 largest copper mines in the world are located in and around the Atacama Desert, while the DRC and Zambia are the fourth and seventh largest producers of copper respectively.

We know that there are more than 500,000 tonnes (t) of scrapped Off-The-Road (OTR) mining tyres being stockpiled for recycling in Chile, but we have no idea how many are being buried or shredded in Africa every day. I stopped counting scrapped mining tyres during WhyAfrica’s Road Trips which included visits to a number of mining operations in the Copperbelt of Zambia, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.


Growing stockpiles of tyres an environmental risk (African mining should take a leaf out of the Chile book)

Chile’s environmental regulations are the most stringent in the world. Not surprising seeing that the Atacama Desert is extremely sensitive ecologically and face similar threats in terms of development as the ancient dunes of the Namib does in Namibia. Not too long-ago Chile identified the growing stockpiles of old mining tyres as one of the most serious threats to the integrity of the desert around Antofagasta.

As a result, the country introduced a law which specifies that, starting in 2023, 25% of mining tyres must be recycled, this increases to 75% as of 2027, and to 100% as of 2030.

In response, Canadian headquartered Kal Tire’s Mining Tire Group, in a joint venture partnership with Japanese giant Mitsui & Co., Ltd., (Mitsui) opened a OTR tire recycling facility in Antofagasta in 2021 which can handle up to 20 tonnes per day (t/d) of tyres, including ultra-class products.

Kal Tire sells, manages, and repairs mining tyres. Several years ago, they made a telling strategic decision to start recycling scrap tyres. The Kal Tire team realised that one of the most challenging environmental threats that Chile and its mining industry will face in the future, was the disposal of end-of-life tyres.

What to do with scrap tyres has long been a significant concern for mines, but for many operations, stockpiling has been the only option. Recycling giant earthmover tyres is complex: tyres can weigh up to four tonnes and many mines are far from major centres, but Kal Tire committed to invest in a solution.

Several years ago, Kal Tire began to explore mining tyre recycling options beyond shredding. Chile became one of the first countries to move ahead with legislation around end-of-life mining tyre disposal and the company developed a unique thermal conversion process that uses heat and friction to convert the tyres back to their base elements – 100% of the material can be repurposed – and there are no harmful emissions.

Located in the heart of Chile’s mining industry, which Kal Tire has been serving for decades, the 20,000 m2 Antofagasta plant consists of an area to inventory scrap tyres, cutters to reduce them in size, two reactors, oil storage tanks and carbon storage.

According to Dan Allan, Senior Vice President of Kal Tire’s Mining Tire Group, the equivalent of five 63” tyres will be converted into 6,500 litres of alternative fuel, 4,000 kg of steel and 8,000 kg of carbon black as well as enough synthetic gas to fuel the plant itself for seven hours. “Local companies are already lined up to receive these reusable products,” says Allan.

“A diverse approach is required to boost uptake and accessibility in OTR tyre recycling. This includes government-led policy, standards (to ensure safety and quality in the collection and recycling process), proactive investments from mining companies, technological and product innovation from tyre manufacturers, and willingness from local businesses to build the skills and capacity required to turn these ‘waste’ products into a source of value. That change necessitates openness, communication, and collaboration across the complete value chain,” says Allan.

“To enable this transformation, mining companies should find ways to build bridges from their boardrooms to the mine sites, to raise the visibility of this issue and to help teams to access remediation budgets. Companies might consider ways to access those funds to meet today’s reclamation needs – they don’t need to wait until year 25 to begin turning their waste tires into value,” he adds.

The sustainable use of water (African mining should take a leaf out of the Chile book)

Kal Tire and partner Mitsui’s thermal conversion plant in Chile uses almost no water in the recycling process, and in water deprived countries like Chile, Namibia, and Botswana, and arid to semi-arid regions like the Northern Cape and Kalahari Desert of southern Africa, this is of critical importance.

The efficient and sustainable use of water in Chile is another lesson for countries in Africa where mining production is predicted to increase triple fold over the next few years.

In Chile, the use of groundwater for mining and other industries, as well as for drinking water, has led to overexploitation of inland water resources in some areas. This, together with a scenario of drought and water scarcity, has led the authorities to declare some areas of prohibition for the granting of new water rights, especially in the Atacama Desert region.

The extraction of inland water resources for development projects is a critical issue that is evaluated in depth in the environmental permitting processes of the projects in Chile.

According to SRK Consulting’s Alvaro Huerta, Principal Geotechnical Engineer, Beatriz Labarca, Principal Hydrogeologist and María Ines Vidal, Principal ESG Specialist at SRK Consulting the mining industry has been a pioneer in Chile in the search for new sources of water, such as desalinated seawater.

“To do this, they install desalination plants in coastal areas and transport it to their mining operations through long pipelines. Some mining operations use seawater directly without desalination.

According to the country’s desalination association ACADES, there are currently 22 desalination plants in operation in Chile with a capacity greater than 20 litres per second (lt/s). Most of these desalination plants are in the regions of Antofagasta (59%) and Atacama (23%).

“This is equivalent to an installed desalination capacity of 8,200 lt/s. These plants supply drinking water and industrial water, also for the mining industry. There are also several new desalination plant projects in different stages of development.

“While seawater and desalination plants may be a viable option for large mining companies, due to the associated capital costs (related with the transport of water from the coast to the higher elevations, where most of the mining operations are located), this would not be an option for small and medium-sized mining companies.

“Water supply options for these may arise through private-public cooperation programs, synergies between companies or other options.

“Although desalination has found a promising niche in northern Chile, mainly due to the water requirements of the mining sector during a record drought, the north region is not well suited to support the many plants that would be needed to meet both the demand for human consumption and mining operations. Given this, efficiency in water use by mining processes is seen as critical.

“This is why mining operations in Chile are applying new technologies to save and optimise the use of water. Over the last decade, the reduction in unit water consumption has come from multiple sources.

“Savings have come from increased reuse and control of water losses and consumption in processes. Particularly in waste facilities such as tailings deposits, savings have come from water-saving technologies such as thickened or filtered tailings.”

The mining industry in Chile is leading the move to become sustainable in a circular economy, and to optimise efficiency without compromising the environment and scarce natural resources like water. An operation like Kal Tire’s thermal conversion plant in Chile was made possible by progressive and constructive environmental legislation which enabled Kal Tire to raise the bar in terms of recycling, reducing, and reusing. African countries need to do the same.

African mining should take a leaf out of the Chile book

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African mining should take a leaf out of the Chile book


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AgricultureEnvironmental Management & Climate ChangeEnergyESGInfrastructureMiningPolitical EconomyTourism and ConservationWater Management