We live in an era of mass overproduction. Offices, apartments, cars, ships, aeroplanes, mobile phones, laptops, batteries, televisions, furniture, air fryers, hot tubs, elevators and escalators. A countless multitude of objects that belong to the anthroposphere – a term for everything that people have made and how it all interacts with the planet.
Many of these products end up as waste, buried in landfill, incinerated or dumped – with catastrophic environmental consequences. At the same time, mining companies continue to pollute the planet, exploit local communities and produce huge CO2emissions in the drive to make more products.
But what if there was a way to use what we already have, instead of mining for more raw materials? Could this alternative system reduce the need for ore, while avoiding the extractivist violence and exploitation that characterise the mining industry?
This is the idea behind ‘urban mining’. “When we talk about urban mining, we're talking about mining what we have already made and brought into an urban context,” explains Jessika Richter, a researcher at Lund University, Sweden. “We can mine many of these same materials out of our products, so not all of them end up in landfill.”
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A recent report shows the huge potential of the global urban mine, which includes all products that are in use, classified as waste or buried in landfill. These existing materials could be reused as raw materials, and any future waste anticipated and utilised. It is a field that, according to experts, can contribute to long-term environmental protection and resource conservation, as well as providing economic benefits.
Throwing away a fortune
It is also a field wrought with challenges. Think about all the things you've put in the bin or taken to the tip over the past decade, then expand that quantity of waste by every business and home in your country. It’s a huge amount of stuff, containing a mishmash of materials, and it could have ended up anywhere. “What enables urban mining is well-sorted waste streams,” continues Richter. “We should sort our streams at collection, as the more it is separated when we get it back, the lower the cost. Same with landfill – the more sorted the landfill, the easier it is to mine.”
As well as requiring good collection and recycling systems, urban mining relies upon people handing over products they no longer use. British charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) recently estimated that as many as 125 million mobile phones are being hoarded in people’s drawers and cupboards in the UK alone. “When you show children how much gold and copper are inside electronics their eyes light up,” says Janet Gunter at the Restart Project, a social enterprise campaigning for the right to repair. “We are literally throwing away some of the most precious and rare materials, we're throwing away a fortune.”
Gunter is calling for a greater understanding of e-waste – any discarded product that has a battery or electrical plug. “The UK has really struggled to make recycling [electronics] accessible to people” she says, explaining that systems for doing so differ between councils and that people often cannot access household waste and recycling centres without a car. “One of the real issues is the opacity of this system itself – it’s really complicated. We need greater awareness about how it all works, who's paying for what, where things go and we need to know that it's making a difference when we recycle.”