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Visualizing the Size of Mine Tailings

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VCE Mine Tailings V2

Visualizing the Size of Mine Tailings

On January 25th, 2019, a 10-meter tall wave traveling 120 km/h, washed 10 million m3 of mining waste from the Brumadinho tailings dam over the Brazilian countryside killing somewhere between 270 and 320 people.

This was a manmade disaster, made from mining the materials we use daily. Every copper wire in your house, steel frame in an EV, or any modern appliance comes from mining.

Mining leaves behind waste in the form of tailings stored in dams or ponds around the world. This infographic takes a look at the estimated size of one part of this waste, tailings, visualized next to the skyline of New York City as a benchmark.

Quantifying Mining’s Material Impact

In the wake of the Brumadinho tailings failure, the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) began a review with institutional investors and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), to survey tailings facilities around the world.

The Global Tailings Review tracked a total of 1,743 unique facilities containing 44,540,000,000 m3 of tailings. This dataset represents only 30.2% of global commodity production.

However, the review estimated the total number of active, inactive, and closed facilities is around 8,500. If we use the assumptions for the 1,743 estimate to calculate for the 8,500 facilities, a total of 217,330,652,000 m3 of tailings are in storage globally.

What are Tailings?

Not all rock that comes out of the ground is metal. Miners find, remove, and refine rocks that carry a small amount of metal we need.

According to the USGS, 72 billion tonnes of material produced just over 10 billion tonnes of ore. Only 14% mined material makes it to processing for metals.

Waste rock (tonnes)Material Sent to Mill (tonnes)Ore Produced (tonnes)Tailings (tonnes)
72,000,000,00018,800,000,00010,180,000,0008,850,000,000

Tailings are what is left over after mills separate the metal from the mined rock. The processed material “tailings” comes from the “tail” end of a mining mill and comprise fine particles mixed with water forming a slurry. Mining companies will store this waste in dams or ponds.

Not All Minerals Are Equal: Tailings Contribution by Commodity

Not all minerals are equal in their contribution to tailings. The grade, quantity, and the process to extract the valuable metals affect each metal’s material impact.

Mineral% Contribution to Global Tailings
Copper46%
Gold21%
Iron9%
Coal8%
Phosphate4%
Lead and Zinc3%
Nickel2%
Platinum Group Elements1%
Bauxite1%
Uranium<1%
Chromium<1%
Molybdenum<1%
Tin<1%
Vanadium<1%
Manganese<1%
Niobium<1%
Rare Earths<1%
Lithium<1%
Other minerals1%
Total100%

A renewable future will be mineral intensive and will inevitably produce more mining waste, but growing awareness around mining’s true cost will force companies to minimize and make the most of their waste.

Turning a Liability into an Asset

While tailings are waste, they are not useless. Researchers know there remains economic value in tailings. Natural Resources Canada estimated that there is $10B in total metal value in Canadian gold mining waste.

Rio Tinto has produced borates from a mine in the Mojave Desert which has left behind more than 90 years’ worth of tailings. The company was probing the tailings for gold and discovered lithium at a concentration higher than other U.S. projects under development.

According to UBC’s Bradshaw Initiative for Minerals and Mining professor Greg Dipple, the mining industry could help society store carbon. For over a decade, he has researched a process in which tailings naturally draws CO₂ from the air and traps it in tailings.

A Material World

While the majority of mining companies manage tailing dams safely, the issue of the material impacts of mining on Earth remains.

Mining of metal has grown on average by 2.7% a year since the 1970s, and will continue to grow. The importance of the size of tailings is critical to address proactively, before it comes rushing through the front door, as it did in Brazil.

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200 Years of Global Gold Production, by Country

Global gold production has grown exponentially since the 1800s, with 86% of all above-ground gold mined in the last 200 years.

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global gold production

Visualizing Global Gold Production Over 200 Years

Although the practice of gold mining has been around for thousands of years, it’s estimated that roughly 86% of all above-ground gold was extracted in the last 200 years.

With modern mining techniques making large-scale production possible, global gold production has grown exponentially since the 1800s.

The above infographic uses data from Our World in Data to visualize global gold production by country from 1820 to 2022, showing how gold mining has evolved to become increasingly global over time.

A Brief History of Gold Mining

The best-known gold rush in modern history occurred in California in 1848, when James Marshall discovered gold in Sacramento Valley. As word spread, thousands of migrants flocked to California in search of gold, and by 1855, miners had extracted around $2 billion worth of gold.

The United States, Australia, and Russia were (interchangeably) the three largest gold producers until the 1890s. Then, South Africa took the helm thanks to the massive discovery in the Witwatersrand Basin, now regarded today as one of the world’s greatest ever goldfields.

South Africa’s annual gold production peaked in 1970 at 1,002 tonnes—by far the largest amount of gold produced by any country in a year.

With the price of gold rising since the 1980s, global gold production has become increasingly widespread. By 2007, China was the world’s largest gold-producing nation, and today a significant quantity of gold is being mined in over 40 countries.

The Top Gold-Producing Countries in 2022

Around 31% of the world’s gold production in 2022 came from three countries—China, Russia, and Australia, with each producing over 300 tonnes of the precious metal.

RankCountry2022E Gold Production, tonnes% of Total
#1🇨🇳 China33011%
#2🇷🇺 Russia32010%
#3🇦🇺 Australia32010%
#4🇨🇦 Canada2207%
#5🇺🇸 United States1705%
#6🇲🇽 Mexico1204%
#7🇰🇿 Kazakhstan1204%
#8🇿🇦 South Africa1104%
#9🇵🇪 Peru1003%
#10🇺🇿 Uzbekistan1003%
#11🇬🇭 Ghana903%
#12🇮🇩 Indonesia702%
-🌍 Rest of the World1,03033%
-World Total3,100100%

North American countries Canada, the U.S., and Mexico round out the top six gold producers, collectively making up 16% of the global total. The state of Nevada alone accounted for 72% of U.S. production, hosting the world’s largest gold mining complex (including six mines) owned by Nevada Gold Mines.

Meanwhile, South Africa produced 110 tonnes of gold in 2022, down by 74% relative to its output of 430 tonnes in 2000. This long-term decline is the result of mine closures, maturing assets, and industrial conflict, according to the World Gold Council.

Interestingly, two smaller gold producers on the list, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, host the second and third-largest gold mining operations in the world, respectively.

The Outlook for Global Gold Production

As of April 25, gold prices were hovering around the $2,000 per ounce mark and nearing all-time highs. For mining companies, higher gold prices can mean more profits per ounce if costs remain unaffected.

According to the World Gold Council, mined gold production is expected to increase in 2023 and could surpass the record set in 2018 (3,300 tonnes), led by the expansion of existing projects in North America. The chances of record mine output could be higher if gold prices continue to increase.

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All the Metals We Mined in One Visualization

This infographic visualizes the 2.8 billion tonnes of metals mined in 2022.

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All the Metals We Mined in One Visualization

Metals are a big part of our daily lives, found in every building we enter and all devices we use.

Today, major industries that directly consume processed mineral materials contribute 14% of the United States economy.

The above infographic visualizes all 2.8 billion tonnes of metals mined in 2022 and highlights each metal’s largest end-use using data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Iron Ore Dominance

Iron ore dominates the metals mining landscape, comprising 93% of the total mined. In 2022, 2.6 billion tonnes of iron ore were mined, containing about 1.6 billion tonnes of iron.

Metal/OreQuantity Mined in 2022 (tonnes)% of Total
Iron ore2,600,000,00093.3%
Industrial metals185,111,8356.6%
Technology and Precious Metals1,500,0080.05%
Total2,786,611,843100%

Percentages may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

Iron ores are found in various geologic environments, such as igneous, metamorphic, or sedimentary rocks, and can contain over 70% iron, with many falling in the 50-60% range.

Combined with other materials like coke and limestone, iron ore is primarily used in steel production. Today, almost all (98%) iron ore is dedicated to steelmaking.

The ore is typically mined in about 50 countries, but Australia, Brazil, China, and India are responsible for 75% of the production.

Because of its essential role in infrastructure development, iron ore is one of the most crucial materials underpinning urbanization and economic growth.

Industrial Metals

Industrial metals occupy the second position on our list, constituting 6.6% of all metals mined in 2022. These metals, including copper, aluminum, lead, and zinc, are employed in construction and industrial applications.

Aluminum constituted nearly 40% of industrial metal production in 2022. China was responsible for 56% of all aluminum produced.

Industrial Metals2022 Mine Production (tonnes)% of Total
Aluminum69,000,00037.3%
Chromium41,000,00022.1%
Copper22,000,00011.9%
Manganese20,000,00010.8%
Zinc13,000,0007.0%
Titanium (mineral concentrates)9,500,0005.1%
Lead4,500,0002.4%
Nickel3,300,0001.8%
Zirconium Minerals (Zircon)1,400,0000.8%
Magnesium1,000,0000.5%
Strontium340,0000.2%
Uranium49,3550.03%
Bismuth20,0000.01%
Mercury2,2000.00%
Beryllium2800.00%
Total185,111,835100%

In the second position is chromium, which plays a primary role in rendering stainless steel corrosion-resistant. South Africa led chromium production, accounting for 44% of the total mined last year.

Technology and Precious Metals

Despite representing less than 1% of all the metals mined, technology metals have been on the news over the last few years as countries and companies seek these materials to reduce carbon emissions and improve productivity.

Technology and Precious Metals2022 Mine Production (tonnes)% of Total
Tin310,00020.7%
Rare Earth Oxides300,00020.0%
Molybdenum250,00016.7%
Cobalt190,00012.7%
Lithium130,0008.7%
Vanadium100,0006.7%
Tungsten84,0005.6%
Niobium79,0005.3%
Silver26,0001.7%
Cadmium24,0001.6%
Gold3,1000.2%
Tantalum2,0000.1%
Indium9000.1%
Gallium5500.04%
Platinum Group Metals4000.03%
Rhenium580.004%
Total1,500,008100%

They include lithium and cobalt, used in electric vehicles and battery storage, and rare earths, used in magnets, metal alloys, and electronics. Many of them are considered critical for countries’ security due to their role in clean energy technologies and dependency on other nations to supply domestic demand.

However, despite increasing interest in these metals, they are still behind precious metals such as gold and silver regarding market size.

The gold market, for example, reached $196 billion in 2022, compared to $10.6 billion for the rare earths market.

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