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One man’s trash: The urban mining revolution

One man’s trash: The urban mining revolution

Global consumption is growing, and so is the amount of e-waste. Urban mining seeks to tap the billions of dollars worth of minerals sitting in landfills.

As the global electronics usage increases, both in the developed world; but importantly in massive developing markets in Asia, South America, and Africa, the world faces an e-waste nightmare. Mounting consumption, shorter product lifespans, and dwindling resources all highlight the need to for new supply chain and waste management solutions.

Enter urban mining, a new and growing field with companies around the world beginning to mine garbage dumps and landfills for precious resources.

Waste not, want not

More than 50 million tons of consumer electronics are thrown out each year, yet only 15% is recycled, the rest ends up in landfills or scrapyards. The recycling rate is even worse for rare earth elements, which see less than 1% of current production recycled.

While the amount of expensive elements in electronics are minute, the scale of global consumption makes urban mining a potential gold mine. In 2013, 320 tons of gold, and 7500 tons of silver – worth $21 billion – were used in electronics production: 10% of annual gold production, and 30% of silver production go into manufacturing electronics.

The numbers are even higher for other materials such as copper: the amount of copper disposed annually in landfills equals one third of global production. Similarly, increasing amounts of lithium-ion batteries are being thrown away, while both production levels and mining costs continue to increase: the lithium-ion market is projected to be valued at $43 billion by 2020.

Urban mining as a new resource frontier

The rate at which the world consumes electronics is staggering: “everyday, U.S consumers dispose of enough cell phones to cover 50 football stadiums” notes Priv Bradoo, CEO of Blue Oak Resources, an American company pioneering urban mining.

The U.S is not the only culprit, indeed in 2009, 234 million electronic devices were disposed of in Australia alone; or ten devices per citizen. E-waste is accumulating three times faster than municipal waste in Australian landfills, yet even just a few years ago the Australian recycling rate was just 4%.

While Australia has since made efforts to improve its waste management, e-waste still accounts for the largest growing waste stream in the world. Consequently, many companies offering reclamation services are beginning to emerge.

Blue Oak Resources is a California based start-up that has launched a $35 million bid to recover gold, silver, copper, and palladium from U.S landfills. Blue Oak’s facility began operations at the end of 2015, and is set to process 6.8 million kilos of e-waste every year.

Similarly, American firm, Recellular processed four million cell phones in 2010, netting $75 million from reclaimed minerals in the process.

Urban mining of e-waste offers many benefits. Firstly, urban mining and recycling operations use only 10% of the energy required by traditional mining. Secondly, the deposits which are being mined in urban mining operations are far richer and purer than any traditional mining operation.

On average one ton of e-waste contains 50 times the mineral content as an equivalent amount of mined ore. For instance, one ton of mobile phones from a landfill contains 100 kilos of copper, three kilos of silver, and 200 grams of gold, with a market value (as of March 2016) of more than $11,100 – and that is not including other recoverable components such as palladium and rare earth elements.

One of the largest urban mining projects to date is being undertaken by UK firm Advanced Plasma Power. In a joint venture with Belgian partners, Advanced Plasma Power will mine a giant landfill some 50 km outside Brussels.

A 30 year project, the company will mine the site that has e-waste deposits dating back to the 1960s. The end result will be a dual revenue stream in which half the waste mined will be recycled, while methane will be extracted from the landfill, powering a 60MW power plant, providing energy to 60,000 households.

Advanced Plasma Power has conducted similar smaller scale operations in the UK; a prime urban mining market. Given the UK’s long industrial history, limited space, and 1st world consumption patterns, the country is facing an impending landfill crisis. Specifically, the UK is expected to run-out of landfill space by 2018, a trend that has seen a doubling in landfill taxes between 2010-2015, as the government seeks to encourage alternative waste management solutions.

Currently Europe leads the way in urban mining operations, as the regulation climate is more conducive to such firms than in the U.S. Allen Herschkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council explains:

“From an economic perspective we need, government requirements, as they have in Europe, that obligate the consumer products companies to participate in funding the infrastructure to recover these materials for recycling or refurbishment.”

It remains ten times cheaper for the U.S to ship its e-waste to (often sub-standard) processing centres in Asia, than to process said waste domestically.

Growing public awareness, concerns about supply chain ethics and corporate America’s green credentials will place pressure on firms to process at home, creating well-paying green tech jobs in the U.S. This is not mere conjecture, states Herschkowitz, who points to the American automotive sector, which has a supply chain, and end-of-life product recycling rate of around 95%.

Benefits at both ends of the production cycle

By shipping e-waste overseas, states and consumers detach themselves from the negative externalities of their consumption habits. Despite restrictions on the trade of hazardous materials, e-waste is considered a commodity, and traded like any other. The majority of this e-waste is processed in Asia (notably India and China), and African states such as Ghana.

Guiyu, China is considered the world capital of e-waste reprocessing, a Chinese monogorod receiving more than 4,000 tons per hour, with processing centres employing 100,000, or 80% of the town’s population. Lax worker safety and environmental laws, as well as rudimentary recovery methods (often involving acid vats and burning e-waste heaps to recover metals) has had devastating consequences.

Guiyu holds the world record for the highest ever recorded levels of dioxin contamination; 90% of its residents have neurological damage, 80% have respiratory diseases, 70% of children have elevated lead blood levels, and the miscarriage rate is six times the national average. Safer, more decentralized, and local urban mining operations will help prevent the creation of more cities like Guiyu.

On the other end of the production chain, urban mining alleviates some of the need for ever increasing mining operations to fuel global consumption. Urban mining can help ease both the economic, but also human impact of mining operations, from displacement (1.5 million people have been displaced by mining in the last 50 years in India alone), to conflict prevention.

Conflict minerals, notably coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fund various militia groups, and keep authoritarian regimes in power, as international mining companies increase operations in dubious locales to meet global demand.

Urban mining offers a host of benefits, as well as a new perspective that has the potential to become a major green tech sector in the future.

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