Urban mining: a precarious sustainability
Urban mining, which consists of recovering and reusing the metals present in vehicles, engines, domestic appliances, batteries and electronic devices, could cover all our needs for metals such as gold and copper, without the need to open new mines. Many irregular immigrants, some 50,000 in Barcelona, survive thanks to this activity in precarious conditions.
The high demand for some metals is leading to the opening of new mines, which are not very sustainable from an environmental point of view. In fact, traditional mining generates 150 billion tonnes of tailings and 12 billion tonnes of sludge every year in the European Union. An alternative would be to promote urban mining. It is estimated that, in addition to minimising waste generation, the measure would reduce groundwater pollution by 76% and water consumption by 40%.
Despite the increase in demand forecast for the coming decades, a report by Ecologists in Action warns that urban mining would be enough to cover 100% of the needs for metals such as gold and copper, and more than half of those for neodymium and nickel. In the case of cobalt and lithium, for which demand is growing exponentially, recovery would cover 8.3% and 2.7% respectively. However, much of these metals end up wasted in landfills.
Unpaid and unrecognised
Despite the fact that gold is 100 times more concentrated in a mobile phone than in higher-grade mines, the recovery of metals like this is held back by economics: under current legislation, it is cheaper to extract them from mines than to recover them from discarded devices. And part of the process is often done informally.
In Barcelona alone, there may be more than 50,000 people who spend long days every day collecting metal parts, as Federico Demaria, professor of ecological economics and political ecology at the University of Barcelona, explains. In many cases, they are sub-Saharans without papers who cannot regularise their situation. In fact, 1 March is celebrated as World Waste Pickers’ Day because of the service they provide to the environment and to society in a precarious way. Without them, much of the scrap metal would end up in landfills.
Unlike some private companies that are paid by the government to collect, transport and recycle these materials, these informal recyclers contribute to the circular economy without any support. They simply collect the metal material from flats and premises under construction, or what they find on the street, and sell it to small legalised scrap metal dealers. These in turn channel it to the established recycling industry, which is worth billions of euros.
A precarious life
A study by the Catalan Recovery Guild estimates that of the more than half a million tonnes of metal waste recovered in Catalonia in 2013, at least a fifth was collected by informal recyclers.
A few years ago, Barcelona City Council promoted the creation of Alencop, a pioneering cooperative that regularised the situation of some thirty of these informal recyclers. Although this initiative had to close its doors as a result of the pandemic, part of its staff joined a private non-profit company called Andròmines.
These employees can be considered privileged among a group of waste pickers who are surviving on the streets of Barcelona. And the situation could get worse for many of them because of their lack of visibility. It should not be forgotten that there are huge economic interests in the recycling industry. The waste management companies, most of them private and with subcontracted workforces, can make a move to make the collection model even more in line with their interests and push informal waste pickers even further to the margins.
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