What Is Urban Mining and Why Are More Companies Not Doing It?

What Is Urban Mining and Why Are More Companies Not Doing It

A look at some companies that are reusing e-waste and the challenges of doing so.

When you think of the word “mining”, you probably imagine something along the lines of deep dark pits and people with pick axes covered in soot. But this kind of mining has already become a thing of the past with the advent of urban mining. Urban mining is the process of reclaiming and re-monetizing the minerals present in urban waste. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that for every million cellphones recycled, 772 pounds (350kg) of silver and 75 pounds (34 kg) of gold can be recovered, indicating the significant financial potential of the sector.

Urban mining not only helps reduce the burden of mining fresh natural resources but is also extremely lucrative. Let’s take a look at how urban mining is helping cut down the waste generated by various industries and the challenges in scaling it up. 


Fabrix is a U.K.-based property development company that is trying to repurpose steel from old office buildings to build new structures. The company has purchased 139 tons of steel from a demolition company to use for its other projects in London. Reusing steel can bring down the carbon footprint of buildings by up to 80%. Moreover, factors like lack of compliance with energy regulations as well as changing work styles (that is, the hybrid and remote working models) have reduced the life of office buildings in London. This has made urban mining highly relevant in the property development sector. Reusing steel, as well as other raw materials, will cut down the environmental impact of constructing new buildings, which accounts for 64% of all waste generated in the UK as of 2018. 

NOVEON MAGNETICS (previously called Urban Mining Company)

Noveon Magnetics is a U.S.-based business that produces magnets from rare earth elements by recycling pre-existing magnets. The company’s proprietary product is the Eco Flux Magnet. When produced using recycled materials, Eco Flux uses 90% less energy and fewer earth minerals than other magnets on the market today. To fully understand the potential of the magnets that Noveon Magnetics produces, it is important to note that these magnets are a crucial part of sustainable products, such as electric vehicles and wind turbines. With growing climate awareness, it is expected that the rare earth element magnet industry will grow to US$40 billion by 2030. These magnets also have other uses, such as in the production of defense equipment like missiles and jets as well as commercial products, like mobile phones and refrigerators. 

Greenscape Eco Management 

Greenscape Eco Management is an Indian electronic waste (e-waste) recycling company that repurposes end-of-life information technology (IT) equipment, such as laptops, desktops and storage devices. The company provides its services to businesses in the telecom, banking and financial services and insurance (BFSI) sector, as well as individual consumers of electronics. The company helps its customers remain compliant with environmental regulations for e-waste disposal while at the same time ensuring high levels of data security. The e-waste collected from these different sources is de-manufactured (disassembling a product into its basic components) into iron-based materials, plastic, glass and rubber. These materials are then re-used in manufacturing other products. 

The limitations of urban mining

Reading about all these companies must have left you with one burning question— If urban mining is so good for the environment, why doesn’t every company practice it at some level? Well, there are a few reasons for that. 

First off, there’s the safety concern in disposing of e-waste (which makes up a large chunk of the waste mined for natural resources). If e-waste is not disposed of properly, it can lead to harmful soil changes and sudden gas leakages. These can adversely affect the health of the people who reside close to urban waste disposal centers. In cities where urban waste is disposed of on a mass scale, people are suffering from neurological damage. This, along with the fact that there is a dearth of adequate infrastructure and skills to dispose of e-waste so ethically, makes it impossible to practice urban mining on a larger scale across the world. 

Secondly, while a lot of recycling processes have a lesser environmental impact than mining resources from the earth’s surface, this is not true all the time. Sometimes, the process of extracting minerals from complex products can come with a high environmental burden due to technical challenges. Additionally, the reason why urban mining isn’t more popular is also that the materials reclaimed might have different colors or textures which when repurposed might not result in the most aesthetically pleasing final product. 

This doesn’t mean urban mining is all bad. In fact, it has become more and more important to repurpose minerals. A study conducted by a researcher from the consulting firm KPMG says that we might run out of natural resources by 2040. This highlights the importance of relying on renewable resources and also repurposing natural resources whenever possible. However, it is important to put significant investment into making e-waste disposal safe and ethically compliant. As technology progresses, hopefully, other challenges such as aesthetic appeal and technical effort required for mining would be addressed as well. 

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Header image courtesy of Pixabay


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