Tailings at IOC's Operations in Labrador City, NL Canada

Air and waste

Whatever our activity – mining, processing, hydroelectric power generation, or moving our supplies and products around the globe – we consider the potential to harm the environment through pollution.

Our environmental technical experts work with our process safety and operational engineers to ensure our operating systems and processes are managed to prevent harmful discharges or releases to the environment.

At a minimum, we comply with national and local environmental regulations related to waste management, water discharge and air emissions. We also apply our own standards, which set the minimum requirements to define, monitor and manage emissions at all our managed operations to prevent harm to people and the environment. These standards also require us to set performance requirements for resource efficiency, particularly relating to mineral and non-mineral waste management.

We contribute to sustainability initiatives across the value chain through our work with peers, industry associations, and customers. And we continually improve our due diligence mechanisms and assess the environmental performance of new suppliers and customers.

Waste

Wastes and residues from our operational activities are a key area of environmental risk management for us. We try to minimise our impact through careful waste management, including mineral waste such as waste rock, slag and tailings, and non-mineral waste such as used oil, office and processing waste. We do this across our operations in many ways.

Turning slime into solar panels

Tellurium is one of the rarest elements on Earth. And it’s an increasingly important one, because it’s used in many emerging technologies – like cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar panels, a highly efficient, rapidly manufactured, and lower-cost alternative to conventional silicon-based panels. Tellurium is usually found in small, sparse rock deposits, making it difficult to mine at scale. But at our Kennecott copper operations near Salt Lake City, Utah, we’ve discovered a way to extract tellurium from an unlikely source – slime.

From waste to soap

For example, at our Oyu Tolgoi operations in Mongolia, 40-50% of waste materials are diverted from the waste management centre through re-use and recycling programs. Not only is this reducing the volume of materials going to the landfill (prolonging the operational life of the waste management centre landfill cells) but it is also supporting Mongolian communities and industries. Waste oil is treated for reuse as lubricants, waste plastic is recycled into plastic pellets for reuse in the manufacturing of other products, and plastic pellets are converted into packaging and medical sharps containers. Used cooking oil from our kitchens is purified by a local company and used to make soap.  

Using waste from aluminium processing to grow blueberries

For more than a decade, we have had a dedicated team – including scientists, and marketing logistics experts – whose job has been to find value from the 350,000 tonnes of non-bauxite residue by-products we produced every year from our aluminium operations in Quebec, Canada. Currently, 85% of this is used to make new products. For example, we have turned anhydrite, a by-product from our Vaudreuil alumina refinery in Canada, into a safe and effective fertiliser for local blueberry growers.

A new way to make cement

We are working with Geocycle Canada and leading construction materials company Lafarge Canada to reuse waste from the aluminium smelting process to make cement. This new product – called Alextra – is made from used potlining, as part of the aluminium electrolysis process that would otherwise go to landfill. Alextra is the result of years of research and development, aimed at finding new ways to deliver sustainable outcomes and value from used potlining. Lafarge Canada will produce on average one million tonnes of cement a year at its facilities in Bath, Ontario, using Alextra as an alternative to raw materials such as alumina and silica, which are commonly refined or mined for use in the manufacturing of cement.

"As a global leader in building materials, we are committed to living up to the responsibility of helping to create a zero-waste future. In order to achieve this goal, we need progressive partners such as Rio Tinto.”

- Travis Smith, Geocycle Canada

It is not always possible to reuse or recycle waste, so we continually develop technology and build facilities to manage it in ways that minimise adverse environmental and community impact, disposal costs and future liabilities.

2016: At our Vaudreuil alumina refinery in the Saguenay, Canada, we implemented a 2-phased project to overcome technical, environmental and social challenges and ensure the refinery could continue to operate in the future. Following public consultation, we built a new facility to filter and reduce the volume of bauxite residue waste at the existing storage site.

2017: Our development of a drilling waste removal system was awarded a certificate of merit in Western Australia’s 2017 Golden Gecko Awards for Environmental Excellence. This award recognises leading practice and innovation in environmental management and provides an opportunity to share experiences between government, industry and the community.

2018: Our Iron Ore Mineral Waste Management team won an International Network for Acid Prevention (INAP) Best Practice award: “Pilbara operations exemplify global best practice and deserve international recognition”.

Progress in 2023: waste

  • Year in review
  • Year in numbers

Year in review

In 2023, we continued to focus on managing potential contamination from these sources. This included work to remove all use of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in fire-suppression systems at our sites, which will continue through to 2024 due to delays in retrofits of equipment and infrastructure and challenges sourcing alternative fluorine-free substances for use in fire-suppression systems in some jurisdictions.

At some of our long-life assets, we continue to evaluate waste management practices of the past that have led to a need for remediation in the present. We focus on finding better ways to extract maximum value and to transform waste and by-products from our operations into materials the world needs. One example is our work to sustainably extract and produce high-purity scandium oxide and tellurium from waste streams.

We also continue to look for opportunities to repurpose items we purchase at the end of useful life. For example, in 2023, we partnered with a local business to trial recycling end-of-life conveyor belts used to move iron ore across our Pilbara operations. This trial will continue into early 2024 and has the potential to divert 10,000 to 15,000 tonnes of waste from landfill every year.

Some of our assets generate mineral waste with the potential to be chemically reactive, requiring careful management to prevent environmental impacts. We conduct independent reviews every 4 years to assess the effectiveness of our risk management programs and identify areas for improvement. In 2023, this was done at 2 sites – Diavik in Canada and RBM in South Africa. The review at Diavik revealed long-term progress in managing and controlling our mineral waste risks. At RBM there were no risks of critical or high significance, and the risk posed by reactive mineral wastes at the asset was low. Further opportunities to improve mineral waste management will continue at both sites in the short and long term.

Emissions and air quality

Clean air is critical for the health of our host communities and of the surrounding ecosystems. Our emphasis is on prevention, managing air quality through operational discipline and process improvement.

We comply with local and state regulations to protect air quality, and we also have our own air quality protection standard. This outlines requirements for how to monitor and manage air emissions at our managed operations. It also provides the framework to prevent, or otherwise mitigate effects that our activities could have on host communities and the environment. To do this, we work to understand our emissions and potential impacts, control emissions at their source, and implement strategies to deal with adverse conditions.

Mining processes, such as the use of fossil fuels, moving ores, waste streams, and smelting metals release gases and particulates into the atmosphere. The major air emissions from our operations are:

  • Sulphur oxides (SOx), mainly at our aluminium and copper smelters and coal and fuel oil fired power stations
  • Nitrogen oxides (NOx) from burning fossil fuels
  • Gaseous fluoride emissions from aluminium smelters
  • Respirable particulate emissions – very fine particles from mining and processing operations and from burning fossil fuels

We monitor and control air emissions where we operate. Our site-based monitoring includes tracking and reporting air quality parameters at intervals related to the type of emission risk, and the requirements of stakeholders and regulators. We use this data on a continual basis to ensure mitigation and control systems are working as expected and to make adjustments where necessary.

Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions

In 2021 we announced new Scope 1 and 2 targets: We brought forward our 2030 target of reducing our scope 1 and 2 emissions by five years. We also tripled our 2030 target, increasing it to a 50% reduction in our scope 1 and 2 emissions.

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What the energy transition means for our business

How we're raising our decarbonisation ambition.

Progress in 2023: air

  • Year in review
  • Year in numbers

Year in review

We focus on reducing emissions at source by upgrading equipment to use the best available technologies, adding air pollution control equipment, implementing mitigation measures and using renewable energy or alternative feed material where possible. Our air quality management programs include monitoring, sampling at source, incident tracking and risk assessments.

Many of our assets have multi-year air quality improvement projects in place. For example, at the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC) , there is a multidisciplinary working group focused on assessing dust abatement options. We are mitigating dust at the source by introducing new dust control technology at the induration machine stacks. The working group is also exploring biodegradable dust suppressants to limit wind erosion at IOC's tailings facilities. We have expanded our air quality monitoring network at IOC’s mine in Labrador City and at our Rio Tinto Iron and Titanium Quebec Operations Sorel-Tracy plant.

In some instances, we exceeded permissible dust levels at nearby air quality monitoring stations. We investigated all high dust concentration events. Most resulted from unusual forest fires, such as those close to our operations in Sept-Îles, Canada, in June, where exceedances were observed over a large region. Improving our air quality monitoring network over the coming years will help us to prevent dust incidents in the future.

 

 

We are working to improve air quality management, focusing on emissions of particulate matter and gases from our operational activities, including mining, materials handling, processing and transportation.

Our emphasis is on reducing emissions at source by upgrading equipment to use the best available technologies, adding air pollution control equipment, and using renewable energy or alternative feed material where possible. Our air quality management programs include monitoring, sampling at source, incident tracking and risk assessments.

Many of our assets have multi-year air quality improvement projects in place. For example, at our Boron operations in California, US we updated a boiler to reduce the amount of nitrogen oxides emitted. At our Pilbara Iron Ore operations, in a region prone to high dust emissions, we created a working group to improve our dust management. The group developed and implemented new controls and improved the dust management systems. For example, at the West Angelas mine, we installed a new dust collector which reduced respirable dust (PM10) emissions by 59%.

In some instances, we did not comply with permissible emission limits. For example, in April, at our Arvida plant in Saguenay–Lac- Saint-Jean, Quebec, Canada our continuous monitoring system indicated that we exceeded the monthly emission limit for dust and fluoride in pot rooms. This had no adverse impact on air quality, and we remained compliant with our daily and annual limits. We investigated, made adjustments to comply with the emission limit and resumed compliance the following month.

With the evolution of climate and our operating conditions, we are focusing on prevention to make sure that we understand evolving conditions and how we can adapt our operations.
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We have a responsibility to extract the full value from the minerals and materials we produce in the safest and most sustainable way possible.

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