Urban Mining

In a recent blog post (see Mining the Abyss) on deep ocean mining, I described a project off the coast of Papua New Guinea where a multinational corporation was engaged in scouring the ocean floor to recover gold, silver, copper, and other rare and precious metals, deposited there because of geological conditions resulting from intense historical underwater volcanic events. The project, only financially viable because of increasing prices in global markets for such resources, was also destroying the local concentration of hydro-thermal vents, the biologically unique so-called Black Smokers, home to myriad heretofore unknown marine species and extraordinary biodiversity with enormous implication for the future of human health. That local subsistence fishing was also significantly disrupted and royalty payments for such activity within national territorial waters were minimal, paid mostly to the central government, with almost nothing for the impacted coastal communities, is yet another negative consequence of this new form of unsustainable natural resource extraction, a distant phenomenon of which the public is hardly aware.

The situation is the result of the enormous amounts of gold, silver, and precious metals that are being consumed by the exponential demand for electrical products such as cell phones, hybrid cars, satellites, medical devices, and new tablet computers, some 100 million of which were sold in 2013, a number expected to double in the coming year. According to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, more than $21 billion was invested in such production in 2013 -- just in gold alone, 320 tons, more than 7.7% of the world’s supply and roughly 2.5% of the total US reserve at Fort Knox. This situation became critical in 2010 when China, a major supplier and processor, especially of rare earths, announced it would limit exports, thus threatening supply for Europe and Japan and causing Lockheed Martin, the American military contractor, to seek an alternative source as a key investor in the Papua New Guinea ocean mining project.

But, as the Deep Sea Mining Campaign points out, there is an extraordinary alternative to this endeavor, a recoverable supply sufficient to meet this expanding demand without disrupting the ocean floor at all – the mining of so-called e-waste – the recovery and recycling of these rare metals already dedicated to this production but being lost as the various devices become obsolete, replaced, or discarded. Thus, some significant amount, up to 85%, of that extant gold can be recovered and recycled efficiently and effectively, especially as the price of gold has increased from the $300 to $1500 an ounce in recent years, a market reflection of the new demand.

Would it not be better to mine that abandoned supply already in hand than destroy a pristine environment, devastate communities, and otherwise add unnecessarily to what has already been extracted and is available? Ironically, what is required here is a profit motive – the realization that mining this urban waste is more practical and advantageous than the more dangerous and politically volatile ocean mining approach. Can not crude processing technology be replaced, in both the developed and developing countries, with new systems already proven 95% efficient, not just to sustain this cycle of supply and the production energy already invested, but also to create many new jobs, new national revenue streams, and solve what is a serious local and international waste management problem with critical environmental impacts that otherwise remain unaddressed? Is this not a powerful enterprise, justified by multiple justifications for investment in this recycling approach by national governments, donor nations, the Global Environment Facility, or the World Bank? Isn’t this exactly the kind of catalytic stimulus that these institutions are meant to facilitate?

In the 1960’s, Jane Jacobs, the prescient American analyst and critic of modern urban development, proclaimed “cities as the mines of the future.” The conditions that drive the need for these rare metals are essentially land-based and urban--as a function of ever-concentrating global centers of burgeoning population, ever-expanding consumption of technological devices, and ever-amplifying consequence of deleterious waste. Just as we have learned to recycle paper, glass, iron, steel, even water, we must now also learn to recover these new elements as well, mine their density and availability, and invent a new conduct toward sustaining the value of these most precious metals already in hand. If we do so, we will simultaneously solve three important problems through a single dramatic action: first, we can remediate profitably an existing toxic situation; second, we can reuse and restore the value of what we have already taken; and third, we can do no further harm by destroying pristine ocean environments and existing coastal communities in the name of unnecessary requirement.


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