Precious little thrives in the Atacama Desert, a barren wasteland sandwiched between Chile’s Pacific coast and the Andean mountain range. The world’s driest non-polar desert, it’s where mountain bikers break records for speeding downhill, where the descendants of settlers thousands of years ago have evolved to drink arsenic-laden water, and where you’ll find Escondida, the world’s largest copper-producing mine.

In fact, Escondida produces over five per cent of the world’s copper – a market share that typifies the economic importance of mining in the South American country. “Copper has been kind to Chile,” wrote the Economist in 2013. “It provides 20 per cent of GDP and 60 per cent of exports. Thanks to it, Chile’s economy is expanding by nearly 6 per cent annually, while inflation and unemployment are enviably low.”

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Yet mining uses vast amounts of water. It may be the main pillar in the Chilean economy – but it remains notoriously unsustainable. However, with water so scarce in the Atacama Desert, it’s should come as no surprise to find a potential solution arising there, too. It comes from Neptuno Pumps, which designs and manufactures energy-efficient water-saving pumps. Specifically, its pumps help mining companies save water during the water-recycling process. In fact, Neptuno claims its pumps allow companies to recycle the amount of water they use by up to 70 per cent – and to reduce their energy consumption by up to 30 per cent.

Better still, Neptuno’s makes 60 per cent of its pumps with reused and recycled materials sourced from discarded pumps and industrial waste – a figure it hopes to increase to 90 per cent within the next five years. And, in collaboration with its partners, the company has set up a system for returning used or broken pumps. It has also opened a remanufacturing centre to which anyone in the Chilean mining industry can bring a broken pump for repair.

The economic impact of giving second life to waste equipment is not insignificant. While maintaining the same warranty as the industry standard, remanufacturing reduces pump costs by up to 30 per cent. Don’t ignore the social impact, either. The mining industry’s use of water exacerbates regional water scarcity, severely affecting local communities. Neptuno’s solution reduces the strain and ameliorates the problem.

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Then there are the potential environmental benefits. Neptuno argues that its solution can help the mining industry mitigate some of its harmful impact. In particular, the company reckons its pumps can reduce production waste by as much as 75 per cent and that energy use in up-cycling pumps is reduced by 70 per cent compared to standard pumps.

There’s another reason why solutions such as Neptuno’s – and the adoption of circular economy in the pump industry – are potentially so interesting. Pumps are the second most-used machine in the world (remember that if you like pub quizzes). That means the industry has a big role to play in the fight against climate change and the battle to stop parts of the planet from becoming as dry as the Atacama Desert.

This innovation is part of Sustainia100 – a guide to 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The guide is produced annually by Sustainia, working with public and private organizations to create a more sustainable tomorrow by building on the solutions available today. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at Discover more @sustainia and #100solutions

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