The challenge of harnessing the sustainable vein of 'urban mining'

Updated: 05/23/2022 02:52h
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In 'La violoncellista', the latest novel published in Spain by Daniel Silva, master of international intrigues, the Wagner Group is mentioned, a paramilitary organization of Russian origin that is very active in different parts of the world with the aim, apparently, of controlling some 'rare earths'. Among the reasons for the invasion of Ukraine are the abundant reserves of lithium stored in its subsoil, a strategic material in the new economy... Since the end of World War II, industrial development and the consequent globalization have led to an eightfold increase in the metal consumption.

More data: on the London Metal Exchange, the price of nickel has quadrupled, and something similar has happened with palladium.

Platinum, rhodium, cobalt, beryllium, borate, niobium, tantalum... unknown to the general public, but widely used in everyday life: mobile phones, wind farms, electric cars, etc. In this context, China controls, according to the US Geological Survey, 60% of 'rare earths in the world' and, according to a study by the Belgian university (KU Leuven), Europe could suffer, around 2030 , the global supply shortage of metals such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, 'rare earths' and copper.

2030 goal

The EU depends heavily on imported materials such as cobalt (86%); lithium and 'rare earths' (100%), aluminum, nickel and copper from Russia, etc. Due to its geological constraints, the EU must focus on properly diversified and undistorted access to global commodity markets, with a paradigm shift needed if new sources of local supply with high environmental and social protections are to be developed. At least, the study by the Belgian university points out that the new national mines will cover between 5% and 55% of their needs for critical metals by 2030, with larger projects for the extraction of lithium and 'rare earths'.

The demand for primary metals in the EU will peak around 2040. Since then, recycling is postulated as one of the only options that can help achieve greater self-sufficiency and strategic security, which will require large investments in infrastructure. If we talk about the management of Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE), the Global E-Waste Monitor 2020 study of the United Nations, indicates how in 2019 the record for world generation of electronic waste was reached with 53.6 million tons, 21% more in just five years… but estimates indicate that around 57,000 million dollars in recoverable materials were lost, close to the annual GDP of Slovenia or Lithuania.

Policies and regulatory development in waste management are crucial, in times when they can mean opportunities for companies and job niches on the rise. The global phenomenon of new technologies also reinforces the tactical role of the correct management of WEEE and 'urban mining', within the European and national strategies for the development of the circular economy. The pandemic has skyrocketed the demand for electrical and electronic products at work and at home.

If recycling and reuse were already a challenge for the entire EU, in which the Ecolec Foundation has been working for almost two decades, now it has become an urgent objective in times of the 4Rs: Recycle, Reuse, Reduce and Repair, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda.

The Ecolec Foundation, created in 2004 by the National Association of Manufacturers and Importers of White Line Appliances (Anfel) and the Spanish Association of Small Appliance Manufacturers (FAPE), managed almost 125,000 tons of this type of waste in Spain in 2021, 8% more on average compared to 2020 (21% in more populated cities). It is the only SCRAP (Collective System for Extended Product Responsibility) that manages to exceed 100,000 tons for five years, despite the pandemic and exceptional circumstances in all aspects.

New challenges

There is no need to relax in the effort, since new challenges arise, such as the rise in sales through the Internet (20% of the total in Spain in 2019, 33% in 2021), with what this means for the collection, management and recycling. And added to the above is the shortage of raw materials and the difficulty of extracting materials from nature to manufacture new devices, when electronic devices continue to proliferate which, at the end of their cycle of use, become 'urban mines' of the 21st century.

Efficient recycling of this electronic device waste would allow the manufacture of new devices and thus promote the Circular Economy model, the creation of new recycling plants and the advancement of new technological processes, with undoubted economic and social benefits. On the ground, Fundación Ecolec managed, in Spain alone, 31,705,932 kg. of refrigerator waste during 2021, which has allowed the recovery of 902 tons of aluminium, 175 of copper, 12.8 of ferrous metals and 129 of non-ferrous metals. Quite a contribution to promote a more sustainable world.

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