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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!


Ready for some gold digging? Don't treat waste only as waste...

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!

11 Comments Add your comment
Avatar blog traffic says:

Hello! I’ve been following your weblog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout
out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the good work!

Avatar Luna says:

Anyone have any more information about landfill mining?
I am student from Brazil and I am doing an article about urban/landfill maning (with reuse of solid waste) and I am looking for more content.
It is something very new here in my country, doesn’t have any project like that.
With you can help me, pleaseee email me.
Thank you.

Federal Technological University from Paraná


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Avatar Maureen Moore says:

There is no future for the car unless people get serious about landfill mining of plastics for moldings, tires, etc., used to make a car. Oil is a one-time gift of the earth and the Belgium project should recycle, not burn the plastics that they find.

Avatar Priti says:

Hi Maureen, i agree in principle with the waste hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle, however in some cases the quality of plastics that have already undergone recycling may actually make it more energy intensive to recycle, and the end product could have limited use due to concerns such as strength, ductility, toxicity etc. so in some cases incineration may actually be a more sensible option. However there are a lot of factors to be considered in deciding which method of disposal is best..

Avatar Bart Adams says:

While your general point remains valid, I’d like to point out that many countries (unlike Britain) have moved away significantly from landfilling by focusing on recycling and waste incineration (generating electricity and/or heat with the produced energy). Examples of this are: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Denmark, etc.
So I would be cautious about extrapolating the way waste is handled in Britain to other parts of Europe / the World.

A second point that I’d like to make is that it is more effective to change the way the current production of waste is dealt with (in keeping with the ladder of Lansink) rather than to start digging up landfills. So I would put priority on this rather than mining landfills.

Avatar Priti Nigam says:

Hi Bart,
Thanks for your comment, you make a very valid point- I agree that Northern Europe does do a better job of sorting out and treating waste, and I also agree with the waste hierarchy (i.e.we must reduce, reuse and lastly recycle), but I feel that particularly for rare earth (RE) metals, from the way prices are rising, and based on restricted availability, the economics and politics of mining virgin RE metals could push forward landfill mining as a viable alternative (albeit temporary) supply stream, and not just in the UK.

Landfill mining would obviously be no substitute for adequate policies to ensure recovery of these metals and I believe the EU is currently stepping up efforts to recover and recycle rare earth metals from electronic waste. Unfortunately, the consumer (especially in the UK) is still largely unaware of the benefits of recycling, particularly recycling of electronic waste.

I used to work with an organisation called the National Industrial Symbiosis Program, which focused on the concept of one company’s waste being another’s raw material, and closing material loops throughout supply chains. For me, this is a sustainable way of waste management, where everything is treated as a resource.

However, such concepts take decades to be widely adopted, and until then, we have a vast resource pool of scarcely available materials available locally; instead of relying on countries such as China to supply us materials such as RE metals, why not use what is already available?

Avatar Priti says:

Thank you!:)

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