EU Maps Rich Resources for Urban Waste Mining

This massive salt pile is visible from the A4 Autobahn near Heringen, Germany is left over from potash mining in the region. (Photo by Gord McKenna) Creative Commons license via Flickr

by Sunny Lewis

BRUSSELS, Belgium, January 19, 2018 ( News) – Gold, platinum, aluminum and copper are just a few of the valuable materials lying hidden in vast piles of waste batteries, electronic and electrical equipment (EEE), scrap vehicles and mining wastes across the European Union.

Today, for the first time, expert organizations have unveiled the world’s first European database of valuable materials available for “urban mining” from these waste heaps.

The new Urban Mine Platform , created by 17 partners in project ProSUM, which stands for Prospecting Secondary Raw Materials in the Urban Mine and Mining Wastes, presents the flows of precious and base metals and critical raw materials for products in use and throughout their journey to end of life.

The database reveals the roughly 18 million tonnes of valuable materials recovered or lost in the EU’s scrap vehicles, batteries, computers, phones, gadgets, appliances and other high tech products discarded every year.

The 28 European Union Member States, plus Norway and Switzerland, generated around 10.5 million tonnes of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) in 2016 – about 23 percent of the world total.

In addition, two million tonnes of batteries and some seven to eight million tonnes of EU vehicles reach their end-of-life annually. All are a rich source of secondary critical raw materials (CRMs).

Pascal Leroy is secretary general of the WEEE Forum, a Brussels-based not-for-profit association and ProSUM project coordinator.

“Three years in the making, this consolidated database is the world’s first one stop shop knowledge data platform on critical raw materials in waste products – easy to access, structured, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, up-to-date, impartial, broad in scope, standardized and harmonized, and verifiable,” said Leroy.

The recently published Global e-Waste Monitor reports that the world’s 44.7 metric tonnes of e-waste alone, not including vehicles, in 2016 contained €55 billion worth of precious metals and other high value materials.

The Urban Mine Platform contains data for elements and materials in high abundance in these waste products, mainly base metals, precious metals, and critical raw materials.

Charts offer detailed data and market intelligence on:

  • The number and type of products placed on the market, in-stock, and generated as waste
  • The compositions of key components, materials and elements, such as aluminum, copper, gold or neodymium, in batteries, electronic and electrical equipment (EEE), and vehicles
  • Waste flows, including amounts collected, estimates for small batteries and EEE in unsorted municipal solid waste, exported used vehicles, as well as the amount of vehicles, batteries and EEE of unknown whereabouts.

The ProSUM consortium says “urban mining” to recover valuable CRMs from wastes is vital for securing ongoing supplies for manufacturing and limit dependence on non-EU suppliers.

To that end, the project partners created from over 800 source documents and databases what they call “a state of the art knowledge base, using best available data in a harmonized and updateable format, which allows the recycling industry and policymakers to make more informed investment and policy decisions to increase the supply and recycling of secondary raw materials.”

The ProSUM report notes that a smartphone contains around 40 different critical raw materials, with a concentration of gold 25 to 30 times that of the richest primary gold ores.

The consortium explains that mining discarded high tech products produces 80 percent less carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gold than primary mining operations do.

ProSUM has shown that an increasing number of products contain precious resources such as neodymium, vital for making permanent magnets in motors; indium, used in flat panel displays; and cobalt, used in rechargeable batteries.

The Urban Mine Platform makes it possible to see the stocks and flows of these products.

Jaco Huisman of the United Nations University, and ProSUM Scientific Coordinator, says, “Until now, data on such critical raw materials have been produced by a variety of institutions, including government agencies, universities, NGOs, and industry, with the information scattered across various databases in different formats and difficult to compare or aggregate and often representing an outdated snapshot for a certain year only.”

“The ProSUM effort helps remedy that problem, and enables the identification of so-called hotspots – the largest stocks of specific materials,” said Huisman.

Europe can potentially mine two million tonnes of batteries a year.

The ProSUM report points to a sharp jump in battery waste the European Union, Switzerland, Norway since year 2000, with 2.7 million tonnes expected to be put on the market in 2020, up from roughly 1.7 million tonnes in 2000.

European authorities know the fate of only half of the estimated two million tonnes of batteries discarded in 2015, about 90 percent of them lead-based.

Other types of batteries available for urban mining – nickel-metal hydride, zinc-based and lithium-based – are a significant source of lithium (7,800 tonnes), cobalt (21,000 tonnes) and manganese (114,000 tonnes).

Vehicles are an increasingly rich source of critical raw materials.

Europe’s end of life vehicles represent a large source of secondary base metals like steel (213 million tonnes), aluminium (24 million tonnes) and copper (7.3 million tonnes), as well as platinum and palladium used in car catalysts.

Vehicles also contain large amounts of critical raw materials due to electronics, as well as alloying elements used in steel, aluminum and magnesium.

Few electric vehicles have yet reached end of life. Still, with sales rising, these will be a source of growing importance for secondary raw materials like neodymium, lithium and cobalt.

The report notes that more than 40 percent of registered vehicles are “of unknown whereabouts” – a gap attributable in part to unreliable data on used vehicles traded within the EU, unreported recycling, and exports beyond Europe.

Mining waste is rich in low grade metals.

The project is also amassing information about resources available in mining waste, which deposits are commonly very large but of low metal grade. New data, such as location, type of waste and origin available in a special extension of the database at Minerals4EU .

Mining waste differs in many respects from the other product groups in ProSUM in that there is no EU legislation that requires recycling, there is no major recycling industry, and Eurostat statistics on mining waste are sparse and only at country level.

The project outcomes are embedded in the European Commission’s (EC) Raw Materials Information System to create a more comprehensive and structured repository of knowledge related to primary and secondary sources consumed in the EU.

With this information, manufacturers can gain confidence about future recycled raw material supplies. Recyclers will have better intelligence about the changes in product types and material content which impact on their business and provide future recovery potential.

The mining industry can use this information for greater certainty about the quantities and types of materials needed in the marketplace, mitigating risk and improving profitability.

Policymakers will be better informed on raw material supplies, which affect jobs and financial institutions, and how materials are linked to energy consumption.

Researchers will have better data quantity, quality, completeness and reliability.

Katerina Adam, associate professor, School of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering, National Technical University of Athens said, “The ProSUM project has advanced the knowledge base for extractive wastes by assessing the availability of data on CRMs in mining waste deposits and expanding the scope of the Minerals Knowledge Data Platform to include more mining, processing, and waste reprocessing activities in future.”

Featured: Wrecked cars in a scrapyard near Wokingham, England, UK contain valuable raw materials. (Photo by sleepymyf) Creative Commons license via Flickr

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