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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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Real Assets

Charting the Gold-to-Silver Ratio Over 200 Years

The gold-to-silver ratio used to define the value of currencies and still remains an important metric for metals investors today.

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historical gold to silver ratio chart

Charting 200 Years of the Gold-to-Silver Ratio

Gold and silver have been precious and monetary metals for millennia, with the gold-to-silver ratio having been measured since the days of Ancient Rome.

Historically, the ratio between gold and silver played an important role in ensuring coins had their appropriate value, and it remains an important technical metric for metals investors today.

This graphic charts 200 years of the gold-to-silver ratio, plotting the pivotal historical events that have shaped its peaks and valleys.

What is the Gold-to-Silver Ratio?

The gold-to-silver ratio represents the amount of silver ounces equivalent to a single ounce of gold, enabling us to see if one of the two precious metals is particularly under or overvalued.

Currently, the ratio sits at about 80 ounces of silver equivalent to one ounce of gold. This is after the ratio spiked to new highs of 123.3 during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While gold is primarily viewed as an inflation and recession hedge, silver is also an industrial metal and asset. The ratio between the two can reveal whether industrial metals demand is on the rise or if an economic slowdown or recession may be looming.

The History of the Gold-to-Silver Ratio

Long before the gold-to-silver ratio was allowed to float freely, the ratio between these two metals was fixed by empires and governments to control the value of their currency and coinage.

The earliest recorded instance of the gold-to-silver ratio dates back to 3200 BCE, when Menes, the first king of Ancient Egypt set a ratio of 2.5:1. Since then, the ratio has only seen gold’s value rise as empires and governments became more familiar with the scarcity and difficulty of production for the two metals.

Gold and Silver’s Ancient Beginnings

Ancient Rome was one of the earliest ancient civilizations to set a gold-to-silver ratio, starting as low as 8:1 in 210 BCE. Over the decades, varying gold and silver inflows from Rome’s conquests caused the ratio to fluctuate between 8-12 ounces of silver for every ounce of gold.

By 46 BCE, Julius Caesar had established a standard gold-to-silver ratio of 11.5:1, shortly before it was bumped to 11.75:1 under emperor Augustus.

As centuries progressed, ratios around the world fluctuated between 6-12 ounces of silver for every ounce of gold, with many Middle Eastern and Asian empires and nations often valuing silver more highly than Western counterparts, thus having a lower ratio.

The Rise of the Fixed Ratio

By the 18th century, the gold-to-silver ratio was being redefined by the U.S. government’s Coinage Act of 1792 which set the ratio at 15:1. This act was the basis for U.S. coinage, defining coins’ values by their metallic compositions and weights.

Around the same time period, France had enacted a ratio of 15.5:1, however, neither of these fixed ratios lasted long. The growth of the industrial revolution and the volatility of two world wars resulted in massive fluctuations in currencies, gold, and silver. By the 20th century, the ratio had already reached highs of around 40:1, with the start of World War II further pushing the ratio to a high of nearly 100:1.

Recently in 2020, the ratio set new highs of more than 123:1, as pandemic fears saw investors pile into gold as a safe-haven asset. While the gold-to-silver ratio has since fallen to roughly 80:1, runaway inflation and a potential recession has put gold in the spotlight again, likely bringing further volatility to this historic ratio.

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2022’s Stores of Value: Gold, Oil and Grains

The start of 2022 has seen commodities surge with crude oil, gold, and grains acting as the new stores of value.

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Chart of 2022 price performance of gold, crude oil, grains, the S&P500, and bitcoin

Gold, Oil and Grains Emerge as 2022’s Stores of Value

2022 started off with a slump for equity and cryptocurrency prices, but real assets like gold, crude oil, and agricultural commodities have more than held their dollar value.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in extreme uncertainty over energy and raw material exports from both nations, commodities had already started to outperform other assets.

This graphic looks at how five key assets have performed in 2022 thus far, comparing the prices of WTI crude oil, the Invesco DB Agriculture Fund, gold, the S&P 500, and bitcoin.

Commodities Surge to Start off 2022

Just a few months into 2022 and commodities have already surged by double digits while nearly every other asset class has struggled to hold its value. Equity indices have continued to slide downwards from their all-time highs set in January of this year, with the S&P 500 down 13.4% from its all-time high.

Although the Energy sector of the S&P 500 is up 33.4% and the Information Technology sector is down 18.9% YTD, tech makes up more than a quarter of the index at 28.1% while Energy only makes up 3.7%. Other speculative tech assets like bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have also significantly drawn down in 2022, with bitcoin down 16.3% and the total crypto sector’s market cap down by 22.4%.

Asset2021 Performance2022 Performance YTD
WTI Crude Oil+56.4%+34.4%
Invesco DB Agriculture Fund+22.4%+10.4%
Gold-3.6%+6.7%
S&P 500+26.9%-12.4%
Bitcoin+59.4%-16.3%

Source: TradingView
Prices as of March 14, 2022

In the meantime, commodity investors have seen record-breaking rallies and volatility, especially in the energy and agricultural sectors. Crude oil is already up 34.4% in 2022 after WTI Crude reached highs of $129 a barrel, and the Invesco DB Agriculture fund which tracks wheat, corn, soybeans, and other agricultural commodities is up 10.4% YTD.

Gold Recovers 2021’s Losses as Rate Hike Looms

While 2021 saw metals and energy prices surge, precious metals like gold and silver lagged behind the pack with negative returns. However, the Fed’s suggestion of raising interest rates has seen investors move out of speculative growth assets and into gold which has historically outperformed other assets in tightening cycles.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also spurred investors towards gold in a flight to safety, with the yellow metal’s price rallying by more than six percent in February, the month of the invasion.

As Russia is cut off and cuts itself off from trade with the U.S. and other Western countries, a new trade system with China that primarily uses gold-backed settlement akin to the petroyuan could push gold prices even higher.

Sanctions and Supply Shocks Fuel Crude Oil and Wheat Rallies

Not long after the U.S. announced sanctions against Russia alongside the European Union and G7 nations, Russia immediately responded with comprehensive export bans against 48 different countries including the U.S. and the EU.

Currently, Russia is one of the biggest crude oil exporters in the world and exported around 4.7 million barrels of crude oil a day for a total export value of $110 billion in 2021.

Agriculture and specifically wheat prices have also surged as the invasion began, as both Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s biggest wheat exporters. As a result of the uncertainty around these vital agricultural exports, wheat prices have skyrocketed nearly 40% over the past two months, and Russia has added fuel to the fire with a temporary grain export ban against ex-Soviet nations.

While the start of 2022 has seen a sizable shift in value towards commodities, we’ll see if these prices stabilize while stocks and crypto recover, or if this year is the beginning of a new commodity supercycle.

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