Urban mining is the process of reclaiming materials from urban waste. A common form of urban mining involves recovering metals and minerals from e-waste.
🌱 Is urban mining widespread?
There is currently a significant gap between the amount of raw materials found in urban waste and the potential amount of raw materials that could be recovered through urban mining. Most urban mining today involves melting down devices in a furnace and focuses on extracting only the most valuable metals – such as copper, silver, and gold. It is not uncommon to recycle only 10% of the material and discard the rest on landfills.
🌱 What opportunities and benefits does it create?
Landfills may now have higher concentrations of certain raw materials than the mines in conventional mining. By recovering value and reinserting it into the supply chain, urban mining can play a key role in achieving a circular economy and meeting the increased demand for resources for electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies. Amongst others, urban mining can have economic, environmental, and humanitarian benefits. In some cases, urban mining can be equally or more cost-efficient than traditional mining. By increasing urban mining, countries “can limit their dependence on foreign minerals, reduce carbon output in industrial production [and transport of raw materials], fortify recycling supply chains, and provide economic opportunities in the e-waste management sector”. On the whole, urban mining “reduces the strain on natural resource reserves”, as well as the need for deep-sea and conflict minerals. It can also alleviate the demand for water supplies in water-scarce areas, where virgin mining often occurs.
🌱 What are the key challenges and concerns?
The lack of (access to) advanced technology and technical knowledge, particularly among developing countries, is considered a large barrier to urban mining. Urban mining may also be financially unattractive, due to high labor costs or the availability of cheap virgin materials. While formal (and adequately regulated) urban mining typically has a lower environmental impact than mining for virgin resources, there are cases where extracting minerals from complex products may be highly environmentally taxing – particularly if large amounts of impurities have to be removed. Moreover, when e-waste is disposed of or stored improperly and leakages occur, the surrounding soil, groundwater, and air can be contaminated. This can have adverse effects on the health of the residents living close to urban waste collection or disposal centers.