Copper: a Success Story in Sustainable Water Management

This World Water Day, we’re highlighting some recent efforts by the European copper industry in the field of waste water treatment.

With more than four billion people living in areas of water scarcity, water crises are ranked as one of the top global risks that threaten economic growth. Water is a critical resource for mining and metals production processes, and the copper industry is very conscious of the impact of its operations on the environment, including water usage.

Copper mining operations are often located in water-stressed areas, making water conservation even more important. We are therefore conscious that our industry plays an important role in tackling global water challenges, and we are committed to the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goal of ensuring sustainable water use and management.

In recent decades, the copper industry has made significant efforts to reduce its environmental impact and minimise the footprint of its activities throughout the entire value chain, including work to restore ecosystems post-mining. Our members have developed innovative treatment processes, both to decrease the amount of wastewater and to ensure it meets the required quality standards before it is redirected to streams, rivers and coastal waters.

Nowadays, our members recycle more than 3 billion m3 of water per year globally, which largely outweighs the amount of water withdrawn.

Waste water treatment in Europe

The European copper industry has a long track record of investing in innovative on-site water treatment solutions to ensure water discharges are safe and compliant with the EU’s stringent requirements and local permits. It adheres to the highest levels of environmental and safety standards, above and beyond applicable EU and local requirements.

Industrial water is used in the copper industry for a variety of purposes, including direct and indirect cooling, waste transportation, flotation, slag granulation and electrolysis. Our members use the best available techniques (as defined by the European Commission) in treatment processes to ensure all waste water is treated, and dissolved metals and solids are removed. Moreover, treated water is increasingly reused, considerably reducing the consumption of fresh water, which further protects the environment and limits the use of natural resources.

The copper industry’s wastewater treatment processes also generate by-products that can be used by other industries, such as gypsum, which is used in plasterboard manufacturing and by the cement industry, and a number of other metals including gold, silver and platinum.

Some of the most innovative waste water treatment processes employed by our member companies at the different stages of copper production (mining, smelting and refining, and semi-fabrication) include:

  • KGHM’s Żelazny Most is the largest Tailing Decontamination Facility in Europe, capable of storing 657 million m3 of residue (tailings) left over from the enrichment of copper ore. It is one of the most advanced and best monitored facilities of its kind in the world, with a safe and effective waste management programme in place meaning the water discharged into the Odra river meets even the strictest cleanliness standards.Once the current extension works are completed, it will be able to deposit 950 million m3 of waste to 2038. Read more
  • Aurubis, Europe’s #1 copper recycler, invested €6.3m to open a rainwater treatment plant, with a capacity of 230 m3/h, at its Pirdop production facility in Bulgaria, becoming one of the few players in the EU to combine three treatment facilities (industrial, domestic and rainwater). The latest technology used on the site enables the quality level of the discharged water to be in full compliance with EU’s the best available techniques (BAT). Read more

For more information about the copper industry’s performance in water management see our Sustainable Indicators, a comprehensive data set measuring our member companies’ contribution to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals.