Urban Mining: The next frontier in the circular economy?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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As the EU moves forward with its circular economy agenda, a holistic approach is needed using all the tools available, including the concept of Urban Mining, writes Laurent Chokoualé Datou, Vice President of Public Affairs at the International Copper Association.

2020 has been a banner year for European environmental policy, seeing the release of a wide range of initiatives under the European Green Deal, covering themes from circular economy to biodiversity to hydrogen.

The European Commission’s Work Programme targets next year to begin translating these strategies into action, with a special focus on circular economy and climate legislation.

The goals set by the European Green Deal will require large amounts of raw materials, including copper. A substantial increase in the use of electric vehicles, smart grids and renewable energy systems will entail a commensurate increase in demand for raw materials. Recycling, in addition to primary mining, will be an essential element in sustainably meeting this increased demand.

While EU member states are quite advanced in recycling, with about 70% of copper in end-of-life products being recycled at present, it is not possible to meet the entirety of Europe’s demand for copper with recycling alone.

Recycling rates can still be improved, thus helping to close the loop and ensure a sustainable and fair balance of primary and secondary raw materials.

According to a newly-released report from Fraunhofer ISI, Urban Mining can play an important role in expanding recycling: where conventional mining secures raw materials by exploring for, extracting and refining natural resources, Urban Mining does so from anthropogenic resources, namely all the products, cities and landfills that humans have built.

This “anthropogenic stock” can be seen as a reserve of raw materials in much the same way one thinks about reserves of natural resources, ready to be recovered and put back into use. Reframing what was once considered waste as a valuable source of materials is a core component of the circular economy.

Urban Mining takes a holistic view of raw materials and how to best recover them, regarding products, buildings, infrastructure, landfills and even mine tailings as sources nearly as rich as those found in nature.

This approach offers a range of benefits, particularly in ensuring secure and sustainable supply chains. Where natural resources are often concentrated in remote or geopolitically unstable regions, Urban Mining unlocks these resources close to where they are needed, increasing resource independence and reducing transport costs.

Furthermore, increasing recovery and recycling rates reduces the strain on natural resource reserves, extending the length of time they can be used. As the Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, supply chain security is a critical element in overcoming future crises.

There are, of course, some limits on Urban Mining, much as there are with recycling in general. Product designers must strike a balance between product efficiency and recyclability: more efficient products are often more complex and difficult to recycle, but the improved efficiency lowers the energy consumption and environmental footprint of the product.

A “design for sustainability” approach can help to ensure the product’s entire life cycle is considered from the beginning, giving due consideration to the product’s environmental impact during its use and the value of its components when it comes time for disposal.

Other proposed applications of Urban Mining, such as landfill recovery, remain out of reach because of regulatory and practical limitations, though these may be overcome as recycling technology improves.

In order for Urban Mining to deliver its full potential, regulators and industry both have important roles to play. Governments can make a major impact by implementing a regulatory framework that incentivises recycling over landfilling, directs secondary materials to where they are needed most, and provides infrastructure to support recycling.

Perhaps most importantly, a harmonised approach to standards and product design between countries could greatly increase recycling rates, something the EU has hinted at with the planned launch of the Global Circular Economy Alliance next year.

Industry must also take responsibility in facilitating the transition to a circular economy, most crucially through making repair and disassembly central elements in product design. Products designed with sustainability and recycling in mind will have longer lifetimes and more easily recovered raw materials once they finally reach the end of service.

More detailed product information from manufacturers would enable further recovery of valuable materials and their direction to the proper recycling routes.

As the EU moves forward with its legislative agenda to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, a holistic approach to circular economy and climate policy will be essential, given the close links between these issues.

Industry and regulators will need to work together to address the trade-offs between recycling efficiency and product efficiency to achieve a low-carbon and circular economy.

If the EU can successfully implement the ambitious goals it has set out under the European Green Deal agenda, Urban Mining can take its place as an indispensable part of truly circular and climate neutral economy.

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