Working together towards a zero-waste mine

07 Oct 2020 | 6 mins

Edition | Three Steps to an Affordable Zero-Waste Mine

Mike Rowe outlines what the WA government is doing to support a sustainable, low-waste, circular economy and encourages the application of its underlying principles to mining waste.

We all have a role to play in protecting our environment from the impacts of waste. While government, industry and the community are making efforts to generate less waste and better manage resources from extraction through to manufacturing, use and disposal, there are opportunities for us to do more.

Western Australians' waste and resource recovery performance is lower than other mainland states, and significant steps are required to close the gap. Adopting a circular economy approach is one way WA could improve its waste and recycling practices and performance. A circular economy transitions from the current take-make-use-dispose system to one that keeps products, components and materials circulating in the economy for as long as possible.

“To achieve a circular economy, waste generated in the state must be valued as a resource, so it can be reused or recycled for the benefit our economy and environment.”

Mike Rowe

This approach is particularly well suited to the mining industry. Mining sites have many opportunities, from the mining and processing stage through to site rehabilitation, to adopt a circular economy approach.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation supports WA’s community, economy and environment by managing and regulating the state’s environment and water resources.

With so much emphasis on mining in WA, ensuring the disposal of waste generated by the industry is both lawful and does not pollute or harm the environment is crucial. As well as being the responsibility of the mining companies themselves, the department regulates waste arising from mining operations through the licensing of prescribed premises under Part V of the Environmental Protection Act 1986 (EP Act).

The department also supports and provides services to the Waste Authority to enable it to perform its functions, such as contributing to the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Strategy 2030 (Waste Strategy 2030), which includes a material recovery target of 75% by 2030.

The Waste Strategy 2030 contains a vision for WA to be a sustainable, low-waste, circular economy in which human health and the environment are protected from the impacts of waste.

The Waste Strategy contains objectives to avoid waste, recover more value and resources from waste and protect the environment by managing waste responsibly, as well as accompanying targets. The focus of the waste strategy is on solid waste; however, the principles and approaches apply to waste management across WA, regardless of the type, form or source of waste.

Finding ways to recover or reuse mining materials aligns with the objectives of the Waste Strategy. Tyre recycling represents one opportunity to recover materials from the mining sector. In March 2020, the Council of Australian Governments agreed to ban the export of certain waste materials, including tyres, while building Australia’s capacity to generate high-value recycled commodities. The waste export ban provides an opportunity for WA to move towards a more circular economy by managing materials that were previously exported. The export ban also provides opportunities to generate local investment and support jobs.

To assist the recycling sector with the waste export bans, the Government of Western Australia announced $15 million dollars in grant funding will be provided to support local processing of tyres and plastics across the state. Access will also be provided to industrial zoned land valued at $5 million for processing infrastructure. State Government funds will be matched by the Commonwealth Government. State funding will also need to be matched or exceeded by industry investment, meaning that total combined investment in local processing is likely to be greater than $60 million.

Recently, there have been reports of emerging partnerships between parts of the mining industry and tyre recovery operations, and I am hopeful mining operations in WA will consider how tyres and other waste can be practically recovered to more closely align with the waste hierarchy and circular economy.

As part of the Waste Strategy, the Government is committed to developing a legislative framework to encourage the use of waste-derived materials, including product specifications, to build confidence in recycled products, increase their demand and develop relevant markets while protecting the environment. Waste-derived materials includes material wholly or partly comprised of waste.

Last year the department engaged our stakeholders and the public on waste legislation reforms in WA. We asked for feedback on our Issues paper: Waste not, want not – valuing waste as a resource. The paper outlined possible reforms to support use of waste-derived materials and encourage the use of fit-for-purpose waste-derived materials and WA's move to a circular economy.

We found there was strong interest from our key stakeholders on the legislative framework for waste-derived materials. The department is using the feedback received through consultation to progress development of the framework, which will provide certainty around when use of waste-derived materials will cease to trigger licensing and waste levy obligations.

In the mining sector, use of materials such as tailings and slags for use in construction products, raw materials in cement manufacturing and the rubber from tyres and conveyor belts in construction and road infrastructure projects could be addressed by the waste-derived materials framework.

There is already innovation in this space with companies investigating opportunities and trialling reuse of mining and mineral processing wastes, such as Alcoa’s Red Sand™ in-fill for industrial land development, turf top dressing and in road base construction; and Lepidico’s potash from lithium mine waste.

Because we know that we cannot achieve good outcomes by working alone, a strategic direction of the department is to lead effective policy and legislative reform by engaging with government, industry and the community. Public consultations help us understand the views of stakeholders, communities and interested parties, and inform a transparent and accountable decision-making process that reflects the views of the public and the priorities of Government.

We are very interested in hearing about current and potential opportunities for recovery and reuse of mining wastes, and how the waste-derived materials legislative framework can support innovation in this space.

I encourage you to comment on the proposed legislative framework for waste-derived materials to ensure it is practical and delivers on our priorities for waste. Further information will be made available on our website.

Minimising waste and protecting our environment is a priority of the McGowan Government and is important to all Western Australians. Applying circular economy thinking and effective regulatory regimes to mining wastes presents a significant opportunity to reduce the economic, social and environmental liability, and increase the value of mining waste.

I am confident that the opportunities presented by applying circular economy principles to mining waste, if harnessed, will move WA towards a more sustainable, low-waste circular economy.

Mike Rowe is the Director General of the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation in Western Australia.

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