What Is Urban Mining?

by | May 14, 2024 | Glossary and FAQs

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Mining is messy, disruptive, and harmful to the environment, but it has long been the only option to extract the metals and minerals we use daily. These materials are used in everything from smartphones to plasterboard, and as the world’s population expands, so does their demand. Our continuous reliance on non-renewable resources has been a contentious issue for decades. Mining is not the sole method to obtain the critical raw materials essential for the green transition. Raw materials can also be recovered from waste, known as Urban Mining.

What Exactly Does “Urban Mining” Mean?

Urban mining is recovering raw materials from rubbish that would otherwise end up in landfills. On a conceptual level, it considers the waste generated by cities and urban environments a valuable resource, using anthropogenic rather than geological resources to meet the demands of manufacturing.

What Is Urban Mining?

It often refers to the recovery of metals from e-waste but has been used more broadly for the recovery and monetization of any materials from any waste stream, including:

  • Construction and Demolition Waste: It includes recovering wood, paper, cardboard, rubber, metals, and other materials.
  • Municipal Solid Waste: General recovery can range from redirecting metals and plastics to commercial composting for resale.
  • Tyre Recycling: The process of recovering rubber and metal from tires and other rubber products.

However, e-waste is the primary target of urban mining since electronics contain various metals that can be recovered at high rates, including precious metals such as gold, silver, and palladium.

What Impact does Urban Mining have on Local Communities?

While urban mining is beneficial, if not regulated and sustainable, it can cause more harm than good. Much of the e-waste produced in developed countries like the United States is sent to developing-world landfills. Once there, it is frequently processed by unregulated and unprotected individuals or discarded in a landfill, where independent “urban miners” hunt for precious elements. This raises several social, environmental, and economic challenges.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, approximately 1% of the urban population in underdeveloped countries survives by separating recyclables from garbage. Many of these so-called “waste pickers” are from vulnerable populations, such as children, new migrants, people with disabilities, and older people.

They confront societal shame and hatred, as well as frequent exposure to hazardous trash, which is particularly damaging to children. It’s crucial to realize that, besides gold and copper, e-waste contains considerably more harmful compounds that the informal “miners” must sort through, such as lead, beryllium, and mercury.

Once gathered by these groups, valuable metals are frequently separated from other garbage, such as plastic housing, by burning. In the informal sector, however, open fires are common in communities that process e-waste.

A study discovered that the unlawful burning of e-waste causes significant levels of air pollution and heavy metal exposure in these communities, “associated with cardiovascular morbidity.” Of course, aside from the direct health consequences for the local populace, this air pollution significantly influences the environment.

Limitations

  • Urban mining shows a gap between its potential for raw material recovery and the actual amounts effectively recycled.
  • Urban mining primarily involves recycling end-of-life products, with European electronics recycling often utilizing crude processes that focus on valuable metals like copper, silver, and gold.
  • Current recycling methods have limitations for critical raw materials, with recovery from landfills and tailings ponds being negligible. Recycling rates for these materials are typically below 10% of the potentially recyclable amount.
  • Challenges in raw material recovery include organizational, technological, and economic obstacles due to a diverse and complex global resource base.
  • Product designers must balance product efficiency with recyclability; more efficient products tend to be more complex and harder to recycle, but they offer lower energy consumption and environmental benefits.
  • Governments can support urban mining by implementing regulatory frameworks that incentivize recycling over landfilling, direct secondary materials to critical areas, and provide the necessary recycling infrastructure.
  • Successfully achieving the goals of the EU’s Green Deal agenda could establish urban mining as a critical part of a circular and climate-neutral economy.

In conclusion, urban mining as an e-waste solution raises several concerns. However, as individuals, corporations, communities, and states transition to zero waste, we may expect to see a rise in circular approaches to managing these resources. Today, for example, landfills and transfer stations provide some sorting before garbage disposal, serving a similar function to urban mining—extracting valuable materials from waste before it is buried in a landfill. These processes, like urban mining, are essential in dealing with existing waste; nevertheless, they should be a stopgap until we enhance global systems to keep electronics and the contained resources in the loop for as long as possible.

Also Read: Food Waste Statistics You Need To Know

 

Author

  • Dr. Emily Greenfield

    Dr. Emily Greenfield is a highly accomplished environmentalist with over 30 years of experience in writing, reviewing, and publishing content on various environmental topics. Hailing from the United States, she has dedicated her career to raising awareness about environmental issues and promoting sustainable practices.

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