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The rise of urban mining – for a world without waste

Steve Deacon

Metal cylinders
The urban mine

'Urban mining' is the process of recovering valuable raw materials from end-of-life products that would otherwise be sent to landfill.

Here at EMR USA, urban mining has become somewhat of a mantra. After all, a greater focus on utilizing the contents of the urban mine will help transform our economy, help businesses meet their carbon reduction targets, and assist the US in achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

As its name suggests, urban mining is a philosophy that views the items we recycle not as waste, but as a precious resource – one that will help reduce the volume of new virgin materials that are extracted from our planet, and help keep valuable, reusable metals in the United States.

At EMR USA, we ‘mine’ various metals and more from end-of-life products. These precious resources arrive at our recycling sites in the form of end-of-life vehicles; materials from redundant and re-developed buildings; industrial, commercial and domestic waste, and even old ships and oil rigs.

By extracting all that can be recycled from the urban mine, we significantly reduce the amount of material that would otherwise go to landfill. Added to that, recycling existing materials and turning them into new goods creates a much lower carbon footprint than mining or drilling for new virgin materials.

By urban mining, EMR USA extracts then recycles precious metals from end-of-life goods and, in doing so, protects the planet from inefficient mining techniques. Going forward, it will be even more important to re-use metals like nickel, cobalt and others, as new mineable metals become increasingly scarce.

Thankfully, there is positive news regarding progress. According to Copper Alliance1 on average 26.7 million tons of copper were used globally (2009-2018); 32 percent of this was sourced through recycling. With the help of urban mining activities, such as those spearheaded by EMR at its various global locations, that level of recycling can only continue to grow. And not simply for copper, but for other metals such as titanium, nickel and cobalt, as well as steel and aluminum.

In reality, urban mining is precisely what recycling businesses such as ours have always done. Over recent years, however, the technology used has accelerated rapidly – something that has been driven largely by technical advances in both metal and plastic recycling.

Nowadays, innovations such as near-infrared and X-ray spectroscopy are transforming the yields we extract from waste. Technological and engineering advances from other sectors, such as the separation technologies used in food production, are all helping to maximize the effectiveness of our urban mining activities. Through the continual investment in new recycling techniques, as well as pioneering processes, we intend to remain a leader in urban mining.

We do, however, recognize that while mining for virgin copper is inefficient, it could be tempting for suppliers to turn back to this traditional resource simply because it is all in one place, namely the copper mine.

That’s why at EMR USA and, indeed, at almost every other EMR site globally, we operate on a large scale – all working in unison to ‘mine’ and produce substantial volumes of reusable precious materials. We are also developing sophisticated techniques to capture even the smallest quantities of strategic raw materials and rare-earth metals from the waste we process – ready for incorporation into the next generation of new products.

Combined, our activities mean a much lower carbon impact. In fact, every EMR operation is working hard to reduce its carbon footprint. We have committed to further cut our emissions and become net-zero by 2040.

By maximizing our belief in the urban mining philosophy, and through investment in technology that will lead to even greater yields, we are also helping other businesses in the supply chain to reduce the impact of their activities on the environment. Of course, if the world is going to fully utilize all the high-value materials that can be extracted from waste, it will need a concerted effort, with every single member of the supply chain - from tech firms and product designers to manufacturers - fully on board and with recycling firmly in mind.

Whatever the sector, industry needs to minimize the breadth of materials used and make it easier to separate and dismantle products at their life’s end. If we all get this right, the concept of the urban mine will change the world for the better. At EMR USA we are proud to be at the heart of this important transformation.