Rethinking Sustainability – How Urban Mining Reuses Valuable Resources Like E-Waste

The Conflict Minerals Reporting Template (CMRT) may be a simple template for many in the supply chain industry. For those familiar, the fifth question on the current conflict minerals reporting template asks if “100 percent of the [tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold] originate from recycled or scrap sources.” The rationale behind this question is to determine if the materials original source may be determined. In cases of recycled and scrap material, it may not be determined. But this question also indirectly supports major sustainability operations.

For every item produced with tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold from scrap and recycled sources, virgin materials are conserved, potentially destructive mining operations are lessened, and a concept called the “circular economy” is strengthened and support for a method of sustainability for supply chains across the world is reinforced.

This push for a circular economy aims to eliminate waste and pollution, allows for the regeneration of nature, and circulates products and materials. Recycling consumed materials back into a production phase directly supports the goal of the circular economy. This is the goal of regulations like “End of Life Vehicle,” which aims to reduce more than 8 million tons of waste from motor vehicles, or the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, which is supported by RoHS and establishes that electrical and electronic equipment waste must be managed by the manufacturer and properly recycled.

These regulations and the concept of a circular economy promote an activity known as urban mining. Urban mining is the method of recovering the valuable resources, such as rare earth metals, minerals, and other raw materials from electronic waste (e-waste) streams particularly found in large cities. But there is more than a “sustainability-incentive” to secure, reuse, and formally recycle these materials used throughout products across the world.

Current estimates from the World Economic Forum from Davos in 2019 estimate that the world produces 50 million tons of e-waste annually. This amount of e-waste is increasing with an expected 120 million tons to be generated by 2050. The current value of these lost materials is estimated at $62.5 billion and there is 100-fold more gold in a ton of e-waste than in a ton of gold ore.

At present, only 20% of all e-waste is formally recycled. The other 80% is either informally recycled or wasted leading to lost resources and potential exposure of workers and communities to heavy metals like lead and mercury.

Traditional mining operations, aside from being destructive to the natural environment and dangerous for workers, will also have difficulty keeping up with global demand for internet connected devices. Furthermore, reuse and recycling of e-waste may prove to be more economically feasible, especially when incentivized by local or government programs.

Everyone uses and then upgrades their electrical and electronic equipment, creating e-waste and ample opportunity for urban mining for businesses across the world. As our population creates this circular economy, we preserve the environment, reduce risk to harmful materials by workers and communities, reduce waste, lower the demand for potential conflict minerals, and make your organization one that chooses sustainability.


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