What is Urban Mining?

What is Urban Mining?I’ve had my share of name calling working in the environmental field over the years. They’ve ranged from “Nut” to “Professor”. Concepts that I’ve proposed have been met with resistance and laughter. One of my favorites was when I was describing the process of thermo-chemical technology, which helps convert waste materials into biofuels such as ethanol. Its technology is able to process diverse carbon-based feedstocks, including sorted municipal solid waste. I was quickly told that Buck Rogers didn’t work here and that feedstocks were what we feed the cows back home. But, guess what? A little over a year later a leading waste company announced a strategic investment in a company with a proprietary thermo-chemical technology!

I’ll admit that I smiled when I read that press release.

For me this was another example in a long line of experiences that demonstrated how individuals react to new concepts that challenge the status quo. They can ignore the issue, change the subject, use denial or just laugh.

Urban Mining, for me, is another example of a concept that challenges the status quo.

I’ve gotten several emails recently that asked me “What did I mean by urban mining?”, “What is urban mining?” and “Is that a different name for dumpster diving?” They came from inquiries regarding urbanmining.org, a website that I co-founded. I understand that urban mining is often used to describe the concept of recovering gold, silver, platinum, iridium and a range of other metals from old electronics. However, I believe that urban mining goes beyond electronics.

My definition for Urban Mining is –  The process of reclaiming compounds and elements from products, building and waste.

This definition is based on the concept of Sustainable Development, the fact that our ecosystem is finite, non-growing and materially closed and on industrial ecology, which examines materials and energy flows in products, processes, industrial sectors and economies.

Our current predominant model is the linear Take-Make-Waste model, in which we take a material use it to create a product and when we have finished with the product we send it to the waste phase, often called the end-of-the-pipe.

By broadening the definition of urban mining to include products, buildings and waste we can extract materials from the end-of-the-pipe and use them in a circular production model as described by Bob Doppelt.

Urban mining goes beyond “Dumpster Diving”, it requires a systems approach that utilizes industrial ecology when viewing our end-of-pipe activities for materials recovery. One of my most favorite examples of this type of approach is the example Paul Hawken described in his book, The Ecology of Commerce that took place in Kalundorg, Denmark. Residual heat and steam from a power plant was used for heating other nearby facilities. Surplus gas from the refinery was used in the place of coal. Sludge from a pharmaceutical plant was spread on local farms. Gypsum, a byproduct of the pollution control scrubbers at the power plant was used by a Sheetrock manufacturer. The fly ash from the coal generation is used in road construction. This is a circular systems approach that works! A city is viewed as an “Urban Mine” and resources are mined, or extracted,  from what was once considered waste.

Professor Thomas E. Graedel, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science, takes it further and includes energy into the concept of urban mining.

“The energy used for primary production is embodied, to a large extent, in the metal and, consequently, in the building too. Today’s buildings and their contents therefore present large “urban mines” of around 400 million tonnes of aluminium metal that can be extracted and recycled by future generations through the use of only 5% of the originally used energy, not just once but repeatedly.

Aluminium is extensively employed in buildings, but it does not remain permanently in place. Buildings are remodeled periodically, and even deconstructed, thereby freeing the aluminium for recycling. Therefore, it is not inaccurate to regard this aluminium as “urban ore” and cities as “urban mines”.”       Professor Thomas E. Graedel

These are just a few examples of the benefits of urban mining and we haven’t even touched on the economic or political benefits of utilizing urban mining in your organization’s sustainability strategy. But, I hope that this gives you a better understanding of the rationale behind my definition of urban mining and maybe gives you a new process that you can use when looking at your organization.

While urban mining may have started out in the electronic recycling industry. I believe that the concept has value in a far broader sense when dealing with sustainable development; one that might even make Buck Rogers proud.


Great article. My first read that furthered my interest into sustainability was Paul Hawkens “Natural Capitalism.” The expansion of the concept of Urban Mining from drilling for resources in landfills to looking for synergies from by-products from one process to be the input of another. When doing a project in one of my sustainability classes I came across an article about using poultry feathers to produce low heat biodegradable plastics. The process could eliminate large amounts of solid waste from the poultry feathers and create a product that has less of an impact on the environment than its traditional alternative.
Posted by Shawn Georgeson

The mining of metals has been the primary source of metals. For some metals, mining is already the activity that supplements the mining of existing stocks in society. While there are many other factors at work that will determine future demand for materials, the stocks of metals in society will be the dominant source with traditional mining only needed for “topping up” and replacing the inevitable losses through multiple product cycles.
Posted by Bruce McKean

I work with a lot of mining companies in the sustainability space. The analogy is very apt. In fact if you take a long view and consider the huge capital outlays required for uncertain gains in the traditional boom bust mining and primary processing sector, it is amazing how frugal investors have been in the area of urban mining. Imagine further that urban infrastructure was designed to be mined – wouldn’t the intellectual property opportunities be huge?
Posted by Sam Nelson

2 thoughts on “What is Urban Mining?

  1. I recently saw some pieces on shows like CNN and the journal with Joan Lunden on PBS that were talking about issues and solutions for industrial recycling. This is an interesting twist that could really become a game changer in the future. Whoever gets in at the beginning of the urban mining will possibly be a part of a new gold rush of sorts. I hope we start implementing such programs early on to reduce our dependence.

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