Tamara Alliot, MMTA
How do you measure the contribution of metals to society? Do we ignore the negatives? How do you tell people about it?
The mining and metals industry has an image problem. Dirty, corrupt and exploitative are words that may spring to mind in certain parts of the world. Energy intensive and polluting are probably used even more widely. However, without the mining of ores and their subsequent processing into metals, we would have no buildings, infrastructure, consumer products (not to mention anything even vaguely high-tech), we would literally still be stuck in the Stone Age. It has been around for a while, but I heartily recommend this video to emphasise the point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZrfmPAvtV8
An important part of the work of the MMTA, and other metals associations, is to promote and inform industry participants, policy makers and interested parties on how (minor) metals are essential to modern technologies and how these resources can be better mined and managed, reducing any detrimental impact on the planet.
In a similar way to the disconnection between live animals and the meat on our tables, the mining and processing of metals have become completely disconnected from the high-tech (and low-tech) products used and relied upon by billions.
An example of this is the recent outrage over BP’s sponsorship of the London art gallery, Tate Modern. There seemed to be no acknowledgement of the number of oil industry products used in the building and the artworks themselves or in just in everyday life. The protesters seemed happy to benefit from plastic products, but only as long as they were far removed from the oil industry itself.
Heavy production and manufacturing is now mostly done in developing countries, and far from the gaze of the public. So the link between a smartphone and a huge hole in the ground is not automatic. Dedicated supporters of the ‘Sharing Economy’ (Airbnb, UBER etc.) fail to acknowledge that computers, mobile devices and servers are still needed to enable this movement, and therefore, by default, raw materials!
Stating the obvious, calculating and communicating the ‘social value’ of a metal is a complex business. How many people were employed to move this material from mine to end-user? How much value does the end product add to someone’s life? What energy/time/money saving does a particular product offer compared to an alternative… I think you will agree that there are no straightforward answers to be found…except that the ‘quantity’ is sure to be considerable.
The marvellous world of minor metals
As Members and associates of the MMTA, we are lucky to be exposed to an exceptionally diverse selection of information on metal innovations and applications: in the Crucible, at the MMTA’s annual conference (other conferences are available…) and from those who have worked in the industry for many years and are passionate about what they do.
The ages of history are categorised by the discovery of different metals and the new tools that were made possible as a result: the Iron Age, the Bronze Age and even now the ‘Minor Metal Age’ according to chemist and author John Emsley. Metal has enabled the development and progress of humankind.
Metals are socio, economic and political power, with experts like David Abraham analysing in detail these aspects in his book, ‘The Elements of Power’.
Even as we speak, a new age of technology, driven by Tesla and its vehicle and home batteries, is fully dependent on the reliable supply of a minor metal, in this case lithium. New electric vehicles and battery storage solutions to fix the problem of intermittent energy supply from renewable energy sources are again completely dependent on a mined product.
Mining has traditionally provided many jobs, but often under hazardous conditions and increasingly located in developing countries (due to the natural concentration of mineral deposits and perhaps due to the NIMBYism and stringent legislation in more developed regions).
free rein to conduct themselves as they please due to their important applications. Minerals and ores must be extracted ethically and to the highest environmental and social standards. Workers should be in a safe environment and appropriately compensated, and then, when the area is exhausted, habitats should be replenished and communities supported.
The industry should be subject to legislative pressure to keep improving its activities, but conversely, regulations should not be so onerous that businesses are tempted to re-locate to less stringent parts of the world, a trend that unfortunately is all too common.
In addition, transparency in the supply chain around conflict minerals and ethical sourcing with suitable scrutiny on end-users’ activities can be a positive, by helping consumers see metals and mining as something that affects and benefits them.
The Circular Economy concept, as previously discussed in the Crucible, is a positive concept that is suited to the metal supply chain, but implementation cannot solve all the world’s ills, especially in the short term. Waste needs to be minimised and recycling maximised, but there is still a gap between what can be retrieved through these efforts and what is required to meet the needs of a growing global population and an expanding middle class with increasing levels of disposable income. This disparity will still need to be met with primary production.
What should be done to better get the message across?
- Acknowledge that communicating the benefits of the mining and metal industry to society is tough; dirty, heavy, old fashioned industry does not tally well with clean, high tech innovations.
- Constant and consistent emphasis on exactly how metals enable the modern world.
- Ensure transparency and traceability in the supply chain and educating the public on where their beloved products are coming from, thereby building trust in the industry.
- Celebrate new technologies and academic research.
- Engage and motivate students in science and engineering from an early age.
In conclusion, better connections need to be made between the ‘industrial’ side and the finished products that they eventually become. Then not forgetting to reuse and recycle end-of-life products, and finally filling any demand gap with ethically mined raw materials.
‘Role of mining in national economies’, ICMM, October 2012
‘The Elements of Power’, David Abraham, 2016
‘Fifty minerals that changed the course of history’, Eric Chaline, 2013, Apple Press