The infamous Johannesburg mine dumps gave this researcher some very creative ideas on how to improve the view and provide homes for people
Some of us call them tailings; most of us call them mine dumps. Just like any industry, the gold mining industry continuously contributes to environmental pollution through the by-products generated from the mining and recovery processes. If you live in Johannesburg, sooner or later you will come across one of these so-called man-made mountains. Some of them are situated alongside the city’s busiest highways. From east to west, tailings from the gold mining industry occupy considerable areas of the land. Their presence, particularly in windy seasons, cannot be ignored. Can you imagine these “man-made mountains” being replaced by human settlements? How about turning them into valuable products, to reduce our environmental footprint?
My personal concern has always been the environmental impact of these tailings. As the season changes from windy to rainy, dust is generated which pollutes the air, affecting both environmental and human health. Approximately 1,6 million human beings live in the formal and informal settlements around these tailings in South Africa. This means about 1,6 million lives are possibly affected on a daily basis. And when it rains, there is a significant impact on the soil, groundwater, water streams, and biodiversity. There is no doubt that our environment is greatly affected by the gold tailings, and this calls for urgent action.
Most industries continue to generate waste. Whether it is hazardous or non-hazardous, if there is no solution for handling this waste, it will all end up in our environment. As researchers, we should start focusing on the beneficiation of this material. What most people see as waste, we need to begin to see as raw material for the production of valuable products. My research focuses on the utilization of solid waste from different industries in the production of value-added products. Depending on the chemical characterization of gold tailings, solutions for the treatment and stabilization of tailings and rehabilitation of land should be considered as an important area of research. This will help not only in saving the environment but also in opening avenues for the manufacturing of material for building and/or road construction. This, in turn, will directly assist in addressing socio-economic issues such as the high unemployment rate among the youth, who can be employed in the manufacturing of products from waste. Gold tailings can be treated, stabilized and then used for building and construction applications.
Over the years I have been studying this subject in various areas, working with gold tailings in Mpumalanga, with paper and plastic waste, and now with gold tailings in Johannesburg. My overall objective has been the same throughout, namely, to address the issues discussed above. As we continue to seek ways to save our environment, these kind of projects are particularly fulfilling, enabling us to contribute to solving various challenges through impactful research that addresses real issues in our society.
As long as we continue to see waste waste and nothing more, it will continue to affect our environment, human lives and biodiversity. Let us change our mindset and start looking at the waste generated by industries – and the domestic waste generated in our households – as a resource. Let us, as researchers, focus on developing value-added products from solid waste. Let ours be research that makes a real impact in our communities and the country.
*Dr Tebogo Mashifana, Senior Lecturer, Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Johannesburg.