Mega trend urban mining

Felix Müller, expert at the German Environment Agency, explains why urban mining is so important for the future.

Scrap yard: recycling metals is worthwhile
Scrap yard: recycling metals is worthwhile stock.adobe.com/Erwin Wodicka

Mr Müller, experts consider urban mining a global mega trend. What does it involve?
Urban mining is the extraction of secondary raw materials from so-called “anthropogenic deposits” – in other words, raw materials that humans have used in the making of buildings, infrastructures or consumer goods and that come from waste dumps or tips. This recycling helps to save the Earth’s natural resources.

Urban mining expert Felix Müller
Urban mining expert Felix Müller privat

What kinds of volumes are we talking about here?
We assume we have currently accumulated almost 60 billion tonnes of material in anthropogenic deposits in Germany. That corresponds to the global production of raw materials in one whole year.

Germany is one of the pioneers of urban mining.

Urban mining expert Felix Müller

In which sectors has urban mining already begun?
Primarily in metals. Metals alone account for 50% of the material value in Germany’s anthropogenic deposits. In addition to precious metals, such as gold, platinum, palladium and silver, base metals like steel, copper and aluminium promise high added value.

How could urban mining be improved?
Starting from the potential in old machinery, losses of up to 70% arise during the registration, collection and processing of precious metals. And when it comes to base metals, we need to address the challenges of downcycling, because metals are seldom required in pure form, but in alloys. As a result, important alloy elements are lost during the recycling of aluminium and steel. This reduces the quality of the secondary metals.

How does Germany compare in the international urban mining ranking?
Germany has one of the world’s most important recycling and environmental technology sectors, and the recycling rates for plastics, metals and building materials have already reached high levels. To that extent, Germany is one of the pioneering countries, alongside Japan, Switzerland and Austria. The important thing now, however, is to increase the quality of the recycled material.

Interview: Martin Orth

More information: urban mining in Germany

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