emew Blog

Urban Mining and Metal Recycling

Posted by Alex Barshai on Sep 25, 2018 1:47:15 PM
Did you know that for every million cell phones we recycle, we can recover 35,000 pounds of copper, 772 pounds of silver, 75 pounds of gold and 33 pounds of palladium? By utilizing metal recycling techniques, these recovered metals can be used to solve our continuously depleting resources.
In the last decades, we have witnessed a decline in metal concentrations in ores. As a result, mining projects have become more expensive due to the massive amounts of ore that now have to be processed in order to extract pure metal.
At the same time, the demand for metals has increased since more and more people in the world are moving to growing cities and want the latest cars, technological gadgets, and computers. Population growth demands housing, infrastructure improvements, public transportation, energy and so on. 
So, how do we keep up with the increasing demand for metals while producing countless tons of industrial and electronic waste?
The answer is Urban Mining.
“Imagine if trees gave off Wifi signals, we would be planting so many trees and we’d probably save the planet too. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”
~ Author Unknown
Urban mining is a relatively new concept which gets people to recycle not just e-waste, but also industrial and municipal garbage, construction waste and furniture. All these contain copper, tin, zinc, gold, silver, platinum, iridium and various other metals.
Today we are standing at the breaking point where recovering metal becomes cheaper than fresh metal mining, and urban mining is going to change the way we recycle municipal garbage.
For many years we used to dump our waste straight into a landfill which included household trash, used batteries, clothes, plastics, appliances, electronic devices, you name it we trashed it.
Not anymore…
metal recycling
Urban mining suggests that our garbage can be reprocessed and whatever is possible to recover will ultimately go back into the consumption cycle. This makes total sense considering how much metal is actually contained in a municipal waste.
Some estimates claim that up to 30 times more gold can be collected from electronic waste, such as mobile phones, compared to the amount of gold that can be extracted from a gold-bearing ore of similar weight.
Imagine how much copper locked in one demolished building - miles of voltage and communication cabling, bulbs, door knobs, plumbing, heating. And the same goes not just for metals. Other valuable materials can be recovered such plastics, cardboard, glass and more.
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Many European recycling companies today collect municipal garbage and separate it. Utilizing a total combustion process they incinerate garbage in a sophisticated plant that also produces energy. This energy is used to power the city as well as the recycling plants themselves that are turning garbage into energy and raw materials.
Considering all the benefits of urban mining, why would we spend all the energy and resources to extract something out of the earth in one place just to bury it a decade later in a different place?
Did you know that:
  • A used aluminium can is back on the store shelf in just 60 days.
  • Close to 1 million trees worth of paper is thrown away every year in the United States.
  • Plastic garbage floating in the ocean kills approximately 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.
  • 10% of the cost of all materials purchased is for packaging.
  • Packaging constitutes approximately 65% of household waste.
The United Nations Environmental Programme estimated that 150 million tons of electronic waste is produced every year in the world. If we put all these electronics on a train, the train would stretch around the earth.
For example, just in Delhi 1500 tons of e-waste produced by local and foreign consumers is dumped every day (!!!). Unfortunately, just 15 to 20% of this is recycled. Can urban mining help the world and solve the ever-growing problem of waste?
More and more facilities are built today based on the idea of urban mining. For example, in Europe, consumer products companies are obliged to invest in refurbishment and recycling of their products. In the automotive industry close to 95% of materials are recycled and value recovered from every small part. 
While urban mining is a relatively new concept, it draws a lot of attention due to its financial and environmental benefits and economic sustainability.  Europe has been a pioneer in urban mining and the rest of the world will eventually follow with support from Industry, Government, NGO's and citizens of this planet wanting a sustainable future for generations to come.
Other than urban mining there are other, more conventional ways to recover and recycle metals.
copper waste treatment

What is Metal Recycling really? 

Presently there has been a greater push for urban metal recycling and instead of the traditional metal sources and mine sites that have been geologically "rich" for mining, more focus has been placed on metal waste and waste solutions being thrown out by consumers, businesses, or industries alike.
Simply by recycling metals from "urban mines", the overall metal economy becomes a circular metal economy versus the traditional cradle-to-grave system.
Decreasing Copper Grades
Let's start from the beginning of the cycle: raw virgin metal is first mined from ore, typically with a high percentage of waste rock (gangue), and is subjected to a series of mining processes before reaching a usable concentrated form for sectors such as the construction, automotive, semiconductor, medical devices, or jewelry industries. These mining processes use an incredible amount of energy and other operating expenses to produce a metal concentrate due in part that a majority of the energy used is to process the gangue along with the virgin metal. With rapidly declining metal grades, the energy efficiency for these mining practices decreases even more.
Pollution is nothing but the resources we are not harvesting. We allow them to disperse because we've been ignorant of their value. 
                                                                                                   - R. Buckminster Fuller
The refined metal is used to manufacture a wide variety of products from cooking pans to prosthetic limbs, and industrial equipment to semiconductor chips, each with its own product lifetime. The resulting metal-laden waste either from the refining of the metal itself or from the production of the finished products at the end of their lifecycles can often be bound for landfills where the metals remain and the process begins anew on a geological timescale.
recycling of metal
However, metal recycling centres have been working all over the world recycling metal waste such as motherboards, semiconductor chips, cell phones, cars, etc or metal waste solutions from commercial or industrial sectors such as refineries, metal finishers, plating facilities, etc and have found clever ways to create value from what has been normally considered valueless garbage. All metals are endlessly recyclable and can be easily recovered to be used over and over again for other many different products. Recycling metals such as copper alone is estimated to save about 84 to 88% of the energy used to mine the same amount of raw copper.
"We were in recycling before recycling was cool."
These methods for metal recycling start by crushing the material into smaller pieces in order to liberate the valuable metals and is separated from plastics, inorganics, or other unrecyclable materials. The now separated and crushed material is then leached into an electrolytic solution and passed through an electrowinning circuit ultimately returning a saleable high-quality metal product to be returned to the value chain.  

A 5 Step Recipe to Metal Recycling

How would the metal recycling process look if we wanted to break it down into five simple steps?
5 steps to metal recycling
By diverting materials once bound for landfills and recycling metals into refined products to be used all over again, metal recycling industries have become an essential element in creating a sustainable industrial ecosystem.














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