Tag Archives: urban mining

‘Urban mining’ can save the deep seabed from exploitation

Collecting copper wires from a dismantled washing machine in the Philippines (Image: Greenpeace)

Improved recycling and a circular economy negates the need for costly and damaging mining of the deep seabed

Natalie LowreyDr Helen Rosenbaum | China DialogueJuly 29, 2019

The world’s first deep-sea mining project to be given an operating licence – Nautilus Minerals’ “Solwara 1” project off Papua New Guinea – appears to have ground to a halt in the face of concerns about its environmental impact and community opposition, culminating in legal action and public appeals to the new national government.

With a resulting lack of investor interest and the loss of its production support vessel last year, it’s difficult to see what the company might now achieve. In its wake, Nautilus has left the Papua New Guinea government facing a debt equivalent to one-third of the country’s annual health budget for its nine million peopleThe fate of Nautilus should send a warning to investors, and nations considering joint ventures with companies.

Early investors jumped ship to form DeepGreen Resources, which is working hard to build its image as a cleaner source of minerals than companies like Nautilus, which aspire to mine hydrothermal vents, or land-based mining companies. Their website describes a sanitised vacuuming up of mineral-rich nodules sitting on the seafloor and claims they will provide “clean metals” for a “sustainable planet”. However, comparisons between the impacts of seabed and terrestrial mining have been shown to be fraught and readily misconstrued by vested interests.

Next year, a little-known UN agency, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), is expected to open up the high seas to mining. The body, which is based in Kingston, Jamaica, is due to finalise its mining code: a set of regulations for exploiting the sea floor in international waters. The ISA has already completed regulations and recommendations for exploration. These have enabled it to grant 29 exploration licences in international waters.

While there is intense interest in the future financial returns that may be available through seabed mining, no commercial seabed mine has yet been established. Thus far the industry remains a speculative and experimental activity driven in large part by commercial and geostrategic competition, as states consider ways to secure access to rare earth minerals that may become increasingly valuable.

In reality, little is known about the impacts of nodule mining. What is known points to serious and irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems. Industry narratives also totally ignore the rights of maritime communities to maintain their social, economic, cultural and spiritual connections to their oceans. They omit the fact that the minerals they seek to exploit – cobalt, nickel, copper, manganese and rare earths – are finite even on our deep seabeds. 

Interest in alternative sources of minerals is growing among civil society, scientists and companies, with work being undertaken towards “urban mining” and the shift to a circular economy.

The circular economy describes an economic system grounded in “cradle to cradle” product design, reconditioning, waste prevention and closed-loop production processes. In response to the momentum, several companies have already put circular economy principles into practice. 

Apple announced in 2017 it would “stop mining the Earth altogether” and the European commission has introduced a circular economic framework. Interestingly, the European parliament has called for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the need for it has been proven, as have prominent scientists, academics and civil society organisations.

There is already investment in urban mining, which is the process of “reclaiming compounds and elements from products, buildings and waste”. A staggering 320 tons of gold and more than 7,500 tons of silver estimated to be worth $US21 billion is used annually to make personal computers, mobile phones, tablets and other electronic products worldwide. There is an abundance of gold, silver, rare earths and copper in the waste generated by the disposal of these products. It is estimated that electronic waste contains precious metal “deposits” 40 to 50 times richer than the ores currently mined.

Urban mining could be more lucrative as well as dealing with an otherwise intractable waste problem, while at the same time capable of meeting future global mineral demand.

The choice for all of us, including investors, should be clear – and in fact is a “no brainer. On the one hand there are the financial, social and environmental risks of deep-sea mining. On the other, there is the financial, social and environmental win-win of a metal resources future which focuses on urban mining and the transition to a circular economy, in which virgin mining plays only a minor role.

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‘Urban mining’: Engineers say e-waste richer than ore pulled from the ground

Amit Kumar has been grinding up LEDs at UBC in Vancouver to recover valuable metals. Arlen Redekop

Amit Kumar has been grinding up LEDs at UBC in Vancouver to recover valuable metals. Arlen Redekop

Urban mining is a much better and cleaner alternative to experimental seabed mining. RIP Solwara 1! 

Randy Shore | Vancouver Sun | January 16, 2017

Electronic waste is proving to be a far richer source of valuable metals than any ore pulled from the ground, according to mining engineers at the University of British Columbia.

PhD student Amit Kumar and professor Maria Holuszko have succeeded in “mining” copper and silver from LED lights, and they are certain that rare earth metals such as europium, cerium and lutetium can also be recovered.

Light Emitting Diodes are gaining popularity as a highly efficient alternative to incandescent and fluorescent lights and represent an increasing proportion of e-waste and a potential source of metal pollution, said Holuszko.

“We believe that within three years there will be enough LEDs in the waste stream to make this viable,” said Kumar. “And if we don’t do it, they will all end up in the landfill.”

What makes the LED recycling process tricky is that lights are made of fused composite materials that blend plastics and metals with a variety of other compounds that cannot simply be pulled apart.

But if LEDs are ground up fine enough, the material isn’t much different from a high quality ore, though one with a variety of metals and industrial materials to be recovered.

“We are using techniques like the ones employed by the mining industry, mainly physical processes that exploit the weight, density and conductivity of the metals to separate them from other materials,” said Kumar. “So far we haven’t needed to use any chemicals, so it’s a very clean process.”

The researchers employ gravity, electrostatic separation, and other non-chemical methods to separate metals from each other and from binding materials. 

Processed samples contain up to 65 per cent recoverable copper — far higher than processed ore — along with 4.5 per cent zinc and 1,640 parts per million of silver.

“Eventually, we also hope to use this workflow to find a way to recover gold in significant amounts,” said Holuszko.

Recovering rare earth metals will likely be accomplished with a chemical process, but only the small amount of material that remains after the common metals are removed would need to be treated, said Kumar.

A successful test run of the process with Richmond’s Contact Environmental recovered copper, zinc, lead and silver, according to Holuszko. The next step is to find an industrial partner interested in investing in a real-world pilot program.

“We have a grant from (non-profit innovation funding agency) Mitacs, but it’s not enough without a private partner,” she said.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Papua New Guinea