Mining for Treasure Within our Waste: Landfill mining
Are you ready to do some gold digging? Don’t treat waste only as waste. It is time we exploit the vast pool of resources readily available to us, and landfill mining seems to be an obvious solution…
For decades, even centuries, humans have treated waste as exactly that: a waste. Nature works in closed loops, where every waste is a resource, yet we have failed to grasp the essence of this simple mechanism, and despite technology being as advanced as it is in the 21st century, landfills still exist. Humans have engineered a way to make space tourism a reality, we have the ability to manipulate our own DNA; we have captured antimatter and created the internet. Yet we continue to dispose of our waste in an archaic, almost uncivilised fashion, using holes in the ground.
With exploding populations and increasing urbanisation, cities are running out of landfill space: research suggests that Britain will run out of landfill space within 9 years. Yet the quantities of rubbish we generate continue to rise, and landfills continue to fill up with various types of waste which could be easily recycled. I would not dare to hazard a guess on how much valuable metal currently sits within sludge pools under our feet. Apparently one ton of scrap from discarded PCs contains more gold than can be produced from 17 tons of gold ore!
There seems to be a disconnect between the way we continue to treat waste and the reality of the world we live in today. We are running out of virgin resources, and this is evident in the astronomically high prices for certain metals: last week, thieves stole copper cables from the railway station in Cambridge, where I live, bringing the transport system to a halt. Similar incidents were reported in the Midlands, Oxfordshire, Wales, London, Washington, Arizona and France. Is ‘Peak oil’ now giving way to ‘Peak metals’?
China has halted the export of rare earth metals, the foundation upon which our vision for a low carbon economy sits. Without these metals, we cannot manufacture wind turbines, hybrid cars or energy efficient light bulbs. Global supplies are dwindling, yet considerable amounts of these metals have been dumped in landfills over the past few decades, and continue to be landfilled.
With rising oil prices, the value of plastics which have been landfilled continues to rise.
It is time we exploited the vast pool of resources readily available to us, and landfill mining seems to be an obvious solution. Landfill mining may sound futuristic, but it is a technology with a tremendous potential to reduce our environmental impact, reduce the burden of landfill maintenance and recover valuable resources including metals, plastics and methane, which can be used as a fuel.
Landfill mining is being trialled at a facility in Belgium, the first in the world. However, for it to be more widely dispersed, associated costs need to be initially balanced by tax breaks, subsidies, and government policies. Eventually, as technology matures, it will become cost effective, but as the pressure on space for landfills continues to grow, and the price of metals continues to rise, it is time to seriously consider adoption of this waste management process!