What is Urban Mining?

It is no secret that when we build or manufacture currently, we do not consider the asset's lifecycle beyond singular use.

As such, at the end of their use, retrofitting might be considered for some buildings, but they are more likely to undergo demolition, have the site cleared, and have a new asset built in their place.

For every five houses built, one house worth of material goes to landfill or incineration.[1]

The same happens with clothing, knick-knacks, shoes, and cutlery, etc. They are used, and if not sent to second-hand shops, are promptly binned, because we generally have more than we need anyway.

But what if we could do things differently?

Urban Mining is simply defined as the process of reclaiming raw materials from spent products, buildings and waste.[2]

Urban mining is a way of collecting materials from an asset at the end of its lifecycle and reusing them to create another asset.

It’s the ultimate recycling.[3]

Diagram explaining the recycling trilogy, which include recycle, reuse, and reduce, with arrow diagrams.

You might retrofit a building to extend its life, say you turn a redundant office block into a bank of sophisticated apartments. But over time the structural integrity diminishes, and the site needs to be demolished.

However, instead of sending a demolition team in to reduce it all to rubble, teams can demolish with a plan and save as many building materials as possible so they can be put back into use directly in another building.

You might take the roof slates, the steelwork, and the old bricks for a façade and insert these into a new leisure complex down the road.

The existing materials can be collected, sorted, cleaned, and sold for re-use, so long the material is still structurally sound and meets all current safety requirements.

This is urban mining in practice.

In a circular economy, a product is preserved as close to its finished state as possible, which preserves as much of its value as possible.

A key difference here from this to recycling is that the material retains its original form. It lives its next life exactly as it was in its first.

This helps the material to retain value, as demonstrated on the top of the zero waste hierarchy shown below.[4]

The zero-waste hierarchy diagram, an inverted triangle that has reusing products at the top, recycling halfway down, and landfilling at the bottom.

When items are recycled into different products, they can lose key features. We see this most commonly when recycling plastic.

Each time plastic is recycled […] its quality is degraded. […] The new, lower grade plastic often becomes unsuitable for use in food packaging and most plastic can be recycled a very limited number of times before it is so degraded it becomes unusable.[5]

Instead of recycling the materials used in construction and using more energy to turn them into something new, and potentially lesser, we can simply take these materials and reuse them as they were originally intended.

This is beneficial for the environment in many ways.

  • It continues to extend the life of products we already have, instead of producing more.

  • It allows us to reclaim waste that already exists and use waste that could end up in landfills or other countries.

  • It will reduce greenhouse gas emissions as there is no secondary production.

This technique is already practiced with electronics such as old mobile phones, laptops, PCs, and tablets etc., as they contain valuable metals that are becoming more costly to find with traditional mining techniques.

Umicore, based in Antwerp, Belgium believe that urban mining rom used electricals could cover up to 40% of the global need for metals. [6]

The Umicore logo. With Umicore written in blue font and a green and blue swirl pattern in a circle in the top right hand side.

Their research has shown that for 1 tonne of mobile phones, 300g of gold is recovered, while from 1 tonne of traditionally mined earth only 2-3g of gold is produced.[7]

Further tests show that the quality of metals recovered via urban mining is equal to metals mined the traditional way, and it allows metals such as europium and terbium to be harvested. This is especially helpful when the last remaining place they can be found is China, which is now reportedly closely guarding the dwindling stock. [8]

Yellow gloved hands hold old mobile phones in front a large pile of more old mobile phones.

This profitable and successful practice and premise can now be applied to the construction industry, to help turn the tide on construction waste, which ‘accounted for an astonishing 62% of the UK's total waste in 2018,’ according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.[9]

However, just as big cities are called the “concrete jungle,” the buildings we see all around us are the biggest and most valuable part of any urban mine. Not just concrete, or the steel that reinforces our modern buildings, but the wood, the glass, the copper pipes, the aluminium facades, the roof tiles, the bricks, even the iron railings on our balconies.[10]

But is it actually practicable?

The simple answer is yes.

It is already happening across the UK and is likely to increase further as BREEAM and SKA environmental certifications become more important, and the country considers its carbon footprint.

The UK Green Building Council, unsurprisingly, were quick to consider urban mining as a solution for constructing their new London head office.

The results are contemporary, aesthetic, and environmentally sound.

“We have managed to reuse or repurpose 98% of the original fixtures on this project,” says Julie Hirigoyen, the Green Building Council’s chief executive, who describes minimising the need for new products and avoiding waste as “core principles” of sustainable refurbishment.[11]

The eco-overhaul of the Council’s office also boasts the lowest carbon footprint of any recorded refurbishment.[12]

A bright, white office with black chairs and computers with a plant wall.
The UK Green Building Council London’s head office.

Similarly, steel from One Broadgate has been purchased by property investor and developer Fabrix for use at their 55 Great Suffolk Street and Blackfriars Crown Court projects in Southwark, London,[13] lessening the environmental impact of future construction and sidestepping the current towering prices for new steel.

As time rolls on, urban mining for construction materials is likely to see an increase across the construction industry.

It makes environmental, financial, and ethical sense.

As with everything, it will take considered effort and a change to the status quo to encourage and implement industry-wide adoption, and may need governmental, and legislative reinforcement.

Yet, it seems a change for the better is never without initial bumps in the road. Remember how confused we all were when kerbside recycling started for domestic properties?

So, let’s prepare for the bumps in the road. Let’s make sure we are exploring all possible routes to minimise waste, reuse valuable goods, save money, and reduce our carbon footprint!

What do you think? Do you think urban mining could work in the UK?

________________________________________________________________________ [1] Quote from Duncan Baker-Brown, Construction 21 International, ‘For every five houses built, one house worth of material goes to landfill or incineration,’ by Sylvain Bosquet on 10.07.2018, <https://www.construction21.org/community/pg/pages/view/35818/> [2] Sintef, ‘Urban Mining,’ <https://www.sintef.no/en/expertise/sintef-industry/process-industry/urban-mining/> 16.05.2022 [3] Recycling.com, ‘ Tools, Insight & Inspiration From Your Recycling Guide,’ <https://www.recycling.com/> 19.05.2022 [4] Zero Waste Europe, ‘Press Release: A zero waste hierarchy for Europe,’ published 21.05.2019, <https://zerowasteeurope.eu/press-release/press-release-a-zero-waste-hierarchy-for-europe/> [5] BBC, The world’s first ‘infinite’ plastic, published by Katherine Latham, 12.05.2021, <https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210510-how-to-recycle-any-plastic> [6] Image from Umicore.com, <https://www.umicore.com/> 16.05.2022 [7] Quoted from ENDEVR documentary, ‘Urban mining, how electronic waste is becoming a lucrative business,’ 01.08.2021, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QkeMtAMnNM> [8] Image from The Independent, ‘Technological leap for ‘urban mining’ could recover precious metals from electronic waste in seconds,’ by Mary Cockburn, published 05.10.2021, image courtesy of Getty, <https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/urban-mining-electronic-waste-recycling-b1932849.html> [9] BBC News, ‘The big problem of building waste and how to tackle it,’ published by Emma Woollacott, 16.09.2021, <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-57899572> [10] https://www.metabolic.nl/news/urban-mining-and-circular-construction/ [11] The Guardian, ‘ A world without waste: the rise of urban mining,’ published by Oliver Balch, on 25.10.2016, <https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/oct/25/urban-mining-recyling-waste-buildings-offices-cities> [12] Image from the UKGBC, taken from above. [13] Bloomberg UK, ‘U.K developer turns to urban mining to slash carbon footprint,’ published by Jack Sidders, 01.02.2022, <https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-01/u-k-developer-turns-to-urban-mining-to-slash-carbon-footprint>

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