Can mines achieve sustainability?

Can mines achieve sustainability?

Simamnkele Ngxesha takes a look at what mining houses are doing to help the world move towards a more sustainable future.

According to the United Nations (UN), sustainability is “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future”. The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary, meanwhile, defines sustainability as “a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not compromised or permanently damaged in the future”. The common factor in both these definitions is that we must be mindful and cognisant of how we utilise resources today, to allow future generations to have equal access to those resources tomorrow.

To achieve sustainability, many industries across the world are creating innovative solutions, and the mining industry is no different. This article describes the current practices mining houses are undertaking to ensure a sustainable future in the scope of health, safety, and environmental (HSE) factors.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) provide a global framework for what many industries ought to strive towards. According to the International Labour Organization, two goals speak to HSE. Goal 3.9 speaks to substantially reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination; Goal 8.8 highlights protecting labour rights and promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers – particularly female migrants and those in precarious employment.

UN SDG number

Statement of the goal


By 2030 substantially reduce the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water, and soil pollution and contamination.


Protect labour rights and promote safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment.

The mining industry, often critiqued for its environmental impact, is undergoing a paradigm shift towards sustainability. In the collective global pursuit of environmental preservation and sustainable development, mining houses are taking significant strides to realign their operations with these overarching goals. These proactive measures not only address the environmental impact of mining, but also contribute positively to social and economic development.

For many years, the mining sector has been under scrutiny due to its substantial environmental footprint. Extraction activities, waste disposal, and resource consumption have resulted in deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation, poor occupational health and safety (OHS), and significant greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, however, mining houses have embraced the challenge and are actively integrating sustainability into their operations, recognising the urgent need for change.

In the South African mining context, the link between SDG 3.9 and the mining industry might not be immediately apparent, but direct and indirect connections and implications do exist. Mining activities can have significant health implications for workers and communities surrounding mining areas. These health issues may include respiratory problems due to dust and pollution, exposure to hazardous substances, and increased risk of accidents and injuries. Communities near mining sites might experience health challenges due to water and soil contamination, affecting access to clean water and impacting reproductive health. 

Mine dust is emitted from open-pit mines, ore processing and metal extraction plants, ore stockpiles, ore transport containers, and mine waste dumps. It contains fine mineral particles that can cause lung disease and other respiratory problems when inhaled. As noted, SDG 3 calls for a substantial reduction in illness and death caused by hazardous chemicals and the pollution and contamination of the air, water, and soil.

Mining companies need to measure and monitor their dust fallout both on site and in their neighbouring communities. According to leading international mining consultancy firm SRK Consulting, the Anglo American-owned Mogalakwena Mine has 32 dust fallout sampling stations in the project area, of which 18 are in residential areas and 14 in non-residential areas. All are compliant with the national dust control regulations and below air quality thresholds. This demonstrates an effort to mitigate the impact of organisational activities and achieve sustainability in terms of environmental health. 

In 2021, Sibanye Stillwater, the world’s largest platinum producer, redefined its approach towards sustainability by choosing one of the 17 SDGs as an anchor for each sustainability theme. An example of this can be seen in the organisation’s performance regarding SDG 8 and, in particular, OHS performance: Sibanye Stillwater has shown a decrease in fatal injury incident rates and lost time incident rates year-on-year from 2020 to 2022.  

The mining industry’s journey towards sustainability, as illustrated by these examples, highlights a commitment to balancing resource extraction with environmental preservation and promoting the health and safety of workers and communities. The mining industry is undeniably undergoing a transformative journey toward sustainability, marked by a conscientious effort to align its practices with global standards, particularly the UN SDGs. The overarching theme of these goals encompasses HSE factors, highlighting the industry’s commitment to fostering a sustainable future. As the industry continues to evolve, these initiatives serve as encouraging signs of progress and a collective commitment to a more sustainable and responsible future.

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