The concept of sustainable development was fully embraced by U.S. Borax as we moved into the third millennium. Just how this was to be achieved was the subject of an address by Peter Edbrooke to the Industrial Minerals Forum held in London, U.K. in November 1999. Until his recent retirement, Peter was deputy chief executive of Rio Tinto Borax and managing director of Borax Europe Limited. Here is his address.
Minerals are obtained by mining, which usually means digging large holes in the ground. Industrial minerals like borates are “special,” as they have multiple specific functional properties, higher value, and are worked in higher concentrations and smaller-scale operations than base metal ores or fuels.
Sustainable development is not about leaving our planet's resources untouched. It is about economic development meeting the needs of the present generation but without undermining the capacity of future generations to meet theirs. We have to do this by generating rising real incomes and quality of life for a world population that will soon be double what it was in the 1980s—without destroying the ecological basis of society.
Sustainable Development in the New Century
In Borax's business, the focus is not just on operations and the environmental and social impacts that these have but also on the product properties, their value to industry, the contribution these have to society, and the consequent benefits we derive.
Borax is very conscious of the responsibilities it shoulders and, through comprehensive plans and procedures, the company manages the environmental, social, and economic impact of its operations. This culture divides into the two broad headings of safety and stewardship.
- Safety: Foremost is the wellbeing of the 1,800 Borax employees worldwide. In the mine and the office, the company goes to great lengths to protect the health and safety of both employees and contractors working at each site. Clear leadership aims to instill a safety culture by focused training in operational procedures and personal behavior and benchmarking. The safety record is exemplary, but Borax always seeks to improve.
- Stewardship: Stewardship covers people and their communities and the environmental impact of company operations and products. Under the former, community relations programs are five-year plans for active partnerships and long-term commitments to projects in education, the arts, environment, and health. At all major sites, Borax monitors local opinion and concerns and acts positively. Wherever possible employee participation in projects is encouraged.
More obvious in the sustainable development equation is the physical impact of mining operations. Environmental management plans have at their heart a proactive approach. There is a commitment to register all sites to ISO 14000 by the end of year 2000, and there are also established final closure plans for each of them. There are targets for reductions in energy and water usage. It also goes without saying that in day-to-day operations, Borax works within, and usually exceeds, the requirements of regulatory frameworks.
Alongside this have to be set the benefits that borates bring to society. Beneath the ground, they are of no use. The task is to bring them to industry in order that industry can bring their properties to society—properties that range through the physical, chemical, biological, and nuclear.
The list of applications is impressively numerous. Each one has to be acknowledged in terms of value to the user—whether in special glasses or glass fiber, as an essential agricultural micronutrient, as a laundry stain remover, in ceramic glazes and porcelain enamels, as wood and fiber preservatives, as a corrosion inhibitor, and even as a cancer treatment in boron neutron-capture therapy.
Sustainable Mining for a Sustainable Future
All these benefits or values contribute to sustainable development in a number of very practical ways. Among these can be highlighted reduced consumption of raw materials, energy, and water; improving efficiencies, and hence reducing waste in production processes; and improving the performance, reliability, and durability of end products.
And the list continues to expand with investment to discover new applications, such as borates improving the handling of steel slag, and in making clay tile bodies to reduce energy consumption, increase productivity, and improve the product itself.
In this sequence of borate producer to industry user to end consumer, Borax has developed a full understanding of the responsible management of borates throughout their life cycle and of their safety. Borates are being evaluated for their safety and effect on human health, under conditions of normal handling and use, within the Classification and Labeling Directive of the European Union's product safety regulatory framework.
In 2000, a group of the world's largest mining companies, including Rio Tinto, established the Global Mining Initiative to present the case for mining as a positive factor in sustainable development. It continues to be a force for examination, reform, and rigorous study of the societal issues the mining industry must face.
Sustainable development in mining is a balance between exploiting what lies below our feet and the benefits we enjoy. Economic growth, ecological protection, and the responsible use of the Earth's natural resources are each integral to the concept; addressing one element without the others does not work.
Borax strives to ensure its operations have the lowest possible environmental impact and make a positive social contribution. And the company works to ensure its products enhance standards of living and contribute to economic development.
The transition toward sustainable development has already started, perhaps hesitantly and untidily, and so the future will be one of change for all industries, including mining. It will certainly not be business as usual with everyone having to adapt to the new norms. Responsible companies like Borax are doing this knowing that it, like others, will be openly accountable for its activities.
I am excited by the challenges the sustainability future holds, not least because they will add a wholly new dimension to competition, both within and between industries. Those who do it better, more efficiently, at lower cost, offer higher value, and are seen to be doing all these things, will be tomorrow's winners. Borax has taken note of this and can be expected to rise to the challenge so that it can continue its claim to be the global borate supplier of choice.