Mining Our Resources
Our society lives in a linear system of ‘take, make, waste ‘. We mine the earth for resources, make stuff from it, use it for a while and then dispose of it.
A tremendous amount of energy goes into mining for metals and minerals, and harvesting our food, wood, hemp and cotton. Clearing of forests is required for mining and agriculture and this has seen a devastating collapse in biodiversity over the last 50 – 100 years. The resulting waste flows from processing the raw materials contaminate surrounding water bodies, groundwater and soil and mining disasters occur frequently and can have catastrophic impacts on surrounding ecosystems, workers and local towns and villages.
Extra resources in the form of coal, oil and gas are needed to drive the mining / harvesting operations and to transport the resources to their markets around the globe.
Linear System of Destruction
Although recycling programs for glass, paper, organics and plastic exist in many cities, a LOT of material still ends up in landfills or waste incineration. Even in the most advanced cities in Europe, that have all sorts of recycling services, the flow of trucks full of waste to dump at a waste to energy (incineration) plant is continuous, 24 hours a day.
And the materials that are sorted for recycling often undergo transformation with degrading value, until eventually the materials can no longer be recycled.
Of course this whole system needs to drastically change because it is absolutely insane, and the way to do this is for our society to transition to a circular economy and utilise cradle to cradle design principles in our products and processes.
This requires a redesign of the whole system, which will take time, but there are MASSIVE opportunities within our ‘linear system of destruction’ for value creation through upcycling of resources that are currently wasted.
Advantages of Urban Mining
So what is a way that we can get more out of the resources that we have put so much effort into, and sacrificed environmental degradation for?
Well, one way is to ‘mine’ materials out of our waste stream, process it back to a usable and valuable state and then make new products that are designed to be recycled.
Diverting waste streams from incineration or landfill, and transforming them into new, usable materials and products, leads to a series of advantages:
- The materials are kept local, which can be a big positive for cities where the waste is transported a long way via trucks or ship to be disposed of. Currently waste from England and Italy are being sent for incineration in the Netherlands and Denmark. (I didn’t eat any magic mushrooms before writing this article, this is really happening)
- Also, by creating useful and valuable materials from waste, less virgin resources need to be mined to keep up with demand for new products.
- The transformation from waste to valuable products requires innovation, new technologies, design, manufacture, marketing and sales. Simply sending waste to an incineration plant does not require nearly as much skill and talent and so there are huge opportunities in job creation for a city.
- It brings Innovation and culture to the city. Let’s face it, there isn’t much culture in shipping a pair of plastic sunglasses that were made in a factory on the other side of the world. But sunglasses made from waste plastic, 3D printed in the city you live? That’s a product that brings feeling, emotion and culture.
The simple fact is that, besides the huge potential economic value generation and environmental benefits, there are no new materials entering the earth and by destroying or burying them, we are depleting resources for future generations.
Great Examples of Urban Mining Companies
Black Bear Carbon
You can imagine how many car tires are discarded every year globally. It’s a lot, and the normal route is incineration or landfill depending on the country. Black Bear Carbon have developed a technique that can almost completely utilise the resources from old tires. The valuable compound they extract from the tires is Carbon Black (used in inks, coatings, plastic and tires) and thereby offsets the need to create new Carbon Black, which is not a clean process and requires burning of fossil fuels.
The food that we eat is full of essential nutrients that we need to survive. But what happens to them after we have consumed them?
Ostara has developed a process that recovers phosphorus and other nutrients from wastewater. The resulting products can go back onto land as fertiliser, providing the vital nutrients into the soil again.
Phosphorous is an element that runs the risk of becoming a very scarce resource, some say as early as 2035. Our use of essential elements like this needs to change to avoid huge problems in the future and Ostara is working on it.
We have all become aware of the massive problems we are facing because of the way we have been using and disposing of plastics. w.r.yuma uses next generation technology with old fashioned hands-on craftsmanship to transform plastic waste into fashionable, made to order sunglasses. The raw material is plastic that comes out of used products such as car dashboards and refrigerators. By 3D printing these materials into sunglasses, w.r.yuma is creating a demand for these plastic waste streams, and providing consumers with a product that brings a completely different experience and makes people think about how products can be made in a better way. When you don’t want your sunglasses anymore, send them back! w.r.yuma will make sure the materials stay in the loop.
Textiles are an extreme example of linear flows of resources. Fast fashion has created a huge demand for textiles that are worn for a very brief time and are usually not even recycled after their life as clothing items. On top of that, the production itself is generally extremely polluting; from spraying huge amounts of pesticides over cotton, to use of toxic dies for colouring which are not properly handled in the clothing factories. HNST is out to change this cycle in the fashion industry. They process used jeans to get the fibers back, and then use these fibers to make new fashionable jeans. This radically different approach of clothing production reduces the need for cotton harvesting, saves huge amounts of water and creates jobs in clean and safe working environments. They have even developed a new way of attaching buttons, that makes them easier to recycle again!