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Urban Mining: The next step in a climate-friendly American economy

March 18th marks Global Recycling Day, a day dedicated to turning waste into opportunity and highlighting the important role that recycling plays in the circular economy. As President Joe Biden approaches his first hundred days in office, all focus is on his ability to follow-through on campaign promises, including his “Clean Energy Revolution” plan.

The plan calls for a transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050 and for the United States to re-engage with the global community on combatting climate change. As we consider how we as a nation can do our part to protect our natural resources, we should look to the Urban Mine.

Urban Mining focuses on the potential for human habitats, such as large cities, to serve as a source for recycled raw materials, in the same way geological reserves serve as a source of primary raw materials. As a way to supplement primary mining, raw materials can be found, extracted and refined from anthropogenic resources in addition to those recovered through recycling.

The goals set forth by the Biden administration will require innovative ideas that can continue to provide the country with large amounts of raw materials that allow us to scale technologies such as electric vehicles, smart grids and renewable energy systems. Urban Mining is a concept that can allow us to sustainably meet this increasing demand.

According to a recently released report from Fraunhofer ISI, Urban Mining can help us bridge gaps in achieving a circular economy by reducing total waste and using resources sustainably. The “anthropogenic stock” can be seen as a reserve of raw materials the same way policymakers think 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 major step toward achieving a 100 percent clean energy economy with net-zero emissions.

Urban Mining takes a holistic view of raw materials and how to best recover them, seeing 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, environmentally sensitive, or geopolitically unstable regions, Urban Mining unlocks these resources closer to where they are needed, increasing resource independence and reducing transport costs and energy use.

Urban Mining has its limitations, and it is not a total replacement for conventional primary mining. For Urban Mining to be effective it requires a combination of strong local infrastructure, technological advancements and market conditions. For example, the US is currently lacking secondary copper smelters, meaning the infrastructure required to increase the recovery of copper from the Urban Mine is limited.

However, the U.S. is moving in the right direction with a new  secondary copper smelting plant expected to come online in North Carolina by late 2022. This capacity to recycle copper is vital to the value chain from both economic and sustainability standpoints. Copper scrap contributed to about 34 percent of the U.S. market’s demand for refined copper in 2018. Expanding the capacity to recover and repurpose copper creates a more circular supply chain for one of the most valuable raw materials.

For Urban Mining to become a standard practice, regulators and industry have important roles to play. Local and federal 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.

In order to scale up Urban Mining, policymakers and industry leaders must take a harmonised approach toward standards, technology development and product design that greatly increases recycling and decreases reliance on often disrupted supply chains of foreign raw materials. Support from the government for adequate infrastructure and incentives for recycling over landfilling are the first steps to creating a paradigm that allows Urban Mining to succeed.

Industry and regulators need to work together to address the trade-offs between recycling efficiency and product efficiency to achieve a low-carbon, circular economy. This Global Recycling Day, call on your communities and leaders to consider Urban Mining and share how it can play an indispensable role in a clean, climate friendly economy as a key part of President Biden’s Clean Energy Revolution.

Adam Estelle is a Program Director at the Copper Development Association with over 11 years of experience in the copper and brass industry.

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