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Urban Mining – a 21st Century Gold Rush!

The first time you come across the term Urban Mining you might, as I did, wonder exactly what it means. Are we digging up areas of cities now? Well sort of. Certainly urban mining refers to digging around for treasures we routinely throw away. Old houses, dumps, landfill sites and ruined buildings are choc full of stuff. Really valuable stuff that can be recycled and reused. Urban mining ups the ante on recycling.

Some use the term to refer to the reclaiming of precious metals found in discarded electronic hardware. But others use it to describe a much broader approach to salvage. Metals, bricks, wood, reusable items from houses.

landfillWisconsin Department of Natural Resources / CC BY-ND 2.0

Joseph DeRisi from Connecticut company says that ‘deconstruction’ of a building can be cheaper than demolition. In the process he reckons he can save up to 80% of the building materials. These are then available for resale and reuse.

In a recent talk at TED, Mike Biddle asked do we see Garbage or Overground Mine? Mike is at the cutting edge of urban mining, solving the difficult task of turning waste plastics into new usable plastics. As techniques for recycling plastics develop, mining of discarded plastic is bound to become big business. However, right now, metal is where the money is in urban mining. Metal is easy to categorize and recycle. Metal is valuable. Some metals are precious!

A quite staggering amount of gold and silver are required annually for the production of the electronic gadgetry we show no sign of tiring of. So urban mining is currently, mainly associated with the recovery of metals from discarded electronics or ‘e-waste’.

cell-phone-dumpFairPhone / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cell phones, smart phones and catching up fast, tablet computers are being replaced by consumers approximately every 18 months. Conservation of natural resources is one part of the issue, another is the fact that traditional mining can no longer keep up with demand. Companies with interests in the traditional mining of gold and diamonds in South Africa are getting into urban mining – recycling!


StEP-Initiative (Solving the E-waste Problem) tells us that annual production of electronic goods worldwide requires:

  • 320 tons of gold
  • 7,500 tons of silver
  • Combined value – $21 billion

At the time of writing it is estimated that a mere 15% of that is recovered.

e-wasteMosman Council / CC BY 2.0

Many of these issues were highlighted at the first e-Waste Academy held in Ghana in June 2012, organized by StEP and GeSI (Global e-Sustainability Initiative). The organizers maintain that electronic goods contain 40 to 50 times more gold and precious metals than traditionally mined ores. It seems that in spite of soaring gold prices in recent years the business world has been slow to see the value in urban mining. That could be changing with the involvement of companies like Green Technology Solutions, Sprint Nextel Corp. and Toyota.

Whether it is reclaimed building materials, plastics, upcycled furniture or e-waste, the modern world is finding value in the stuff we throw away.  Waste is being turned into a resource to be managed and exploited rather than disposed of.  A 21st century gold rush has begun.

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