Urban Mining

From Environmentally Harmful Waste to Huge Opportunities

by | Jan 15, 2014

An abandoned mine shaft in the mountains north of Copiapo, Chile. Photo courtesy of Louie Palu.


Consider two seemingly unrelated issues: rising urban poverty and electronic waste.

The Cities Alliance estimates that urban slums in developing countries are growing by roughly 120,000 people per day. As of 2012, the Latin American and Caribbean regions have seen a proportional decline in their slum dweller population (a positive development of the past two decades) but in absolute terms the number of slum dwellers has increased to a staggering 111 million.

Hold this image next to another of growing concern: current global production of electronic or e-waste is roughly 50 million tons per year, with Europe, the United States and Australasia being the largest producers. According to a report by UNEP titled “Recycling—from E-Waste to Resources,” the amount of e-waste being produced, including mobile phones and computers, could rise by as much as 500 percent over the next decade.

Increasing consumption of technology driven by the constant desire to have the newest and most advanced devices has translated into huge quantities of discarded cell phones, computers and household appliances. This consistent trend is fueling the rapid expansion of landfills with potentially hazardous consequences for human habitation, animal life and water resources. But what if e-waste is as much an opportunity as it is a risk?

Enter urban mining: a modern construct on an ancient practice, this little-known term defines the activity of reclaiming compounds and elements from discarded items—the most valuable of those found in e-waste.

According to some estimates, up to 30 times as much gold can be found in cell phone circuitry as in the gold ore processed from gold mines. More specifically, some 150 grams, or 5.3 ounces, per ton, compared to a meager five grams, or 0.18 ounces per ton from gold mines. To add to that, the same quantity of cell phones also contains 100 kg. (220 lb.) of copper and 3 kg. (6.6 lb.) of silver, as well as many other precious materials.

An unusual mining-related phenomenon is taking shape in Chile. The country is leading the way in urban mining with e-waste recycler Chilerecicla having finalized a joint venture earlier in 2013 with Green Technology Solutions, Inc., (GTSO). With the global e-waste market valued at US$9 billion a year, the state aims to capture a share of the business while benefiting the environment.

Latin American nations such as Chile actually lead the United States in recovering unwanted computers, electronics and other gadgets from the waste stream. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only about 25 percent of electronic waste is collected in the United States with about 38 percent of that waste stemming from computers.

Beyond the potential profit from this fledgling industry, what if slum dwellers could help in the collection and basic processing of e-waste—helping reclaim precious elements inside discarded technology that is now nothing more than pollution?

And what if part of the revenue from reclaimed e-waste elements was channeled into state and local programs to address issues related to urban slums, informal settlements, poverty and unemployment that plague favelas from São Paulo to Rio, across the Latin America region and worldwide?

National and local governments could partner with smaller e-waste recyclers, providing them with critical startup capital in exchange for a share of profits which would offset government operational costs as well as generate employment and additionally budgetary resources. With more than 100 million slum dwellers in Latin America and persistent issues of urban poverty and unemployment, training and employing slum dwellers could help mitigate these problems.

Not only would public-private partnerships focusing on e-waste mining and recycling generate viable employment for those on the fringes of society; their income would then be spent in local shops generating new revenue streams for a key driver of economic growth: small-and medium- size businesses.

Now let’s look back at the two images we started with: rising urban poverty/growth of urban slums and e-waste.

Our original image is now one of a growing problem (urban poverty/urban slums) and a partial solution to address that problem (urban mining/mining of e-waste).

Imagine turning our unwanted technology into large value/revenue streams for the gain of a broad range of stakeholders from slum dwellers to small and medium enterprises to government, while at the same time removing a growing burden on our environment. Urban mining can redirect the GPS of a huge industry by drawing attention, resources and action to what would otherwise be considered unwanted garbage.

*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and the author only. They do not reflect in any way the views/opinions of the institutions/entities (UNOPS and the Cities Alliance) with which the author is affiliated.

Winter 2014Volume XIII, Number 2

David Daepp is Project Manager with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and the Cities Alliance programme (citiesalliance.org). He can be contacted at ddaepp@gmail.com.

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