True or false: U.S. landfills could provide enough steel to equal four full years of American steel production. The surprising answer? True. Already consuming approximately 100 million metric tons of scrap steel each year, the U.S. steel industry recognizes that landfill mining is estimated to uncover more than 400 million metric tons of steel. Further, some experts estimate that there’s more aluminum in landfills than the concentrations in iron ore, and trashed computers could provide more gold, copper and mercury. Landfills, it seems, are evolving into gold mines.
In a recent article, Sarah Barmak notes the benefits that come from landfill mining. An environmentally friendly practice, “mining” a landfill stops groundwater contamination before it starts, and prevents methane production. Although some studies concerning landfill mining took a break when metals and commodities prices fell, the scarcity of certain resources now makes it a viable opportunity. The United Nations recognizes landfill mining as a clean development project, and several countries have attempted mining their own landfills.
Earlier this month, Faversham House Group (FHG) ran a piece about landfills resurrecting Britain’s mining industry, alerting readers to the negative aspects associated with landfill mining. Although some consider the practice downright eco-friendly, the fact remains that “it’s an extremely corrosive atmosphere,” freelance waste consultant Peter Jones warns. “[When you open these things up] you will certainly discover that it’s pretty awful in terms of decomposition.”
The harm, then, comes from a “corrosive soup” that will eat away at many metals before their resurrection. One idea from MetalMiner: Maybe we should separate and recycle waste earlier in the process, before items hit a landfill, rather than waiting for this appetizing soup.
For a more exciting mental vision, imagine this science fiction scene from the FHG article: “An air-tight dome with teams of robots working alongside people in space suits as they sift through the corrosive waste of past generations, looking for scraps of plastic and nuggets of precious metals.”
Reminiscent of WALL-E, these images could easily represent the future in mining, particularly as concerns over certain “peak” commodities rise. However, the cost to mine a landfill in England still doesn’t break even with the resulting cash flow. In addition, the landscape poses a dilemma, and people living near former landfill areas won’t appreciate landfill mining. Who wants to look out the window and admire the local waste? But the process is looking more practical, and even FHG notes the possibilities: “Existing drivers are already making the prospect more and more attractive as time passes. Rising landfill gate fees, growing incentives to find low-carbon fuel and pressures on existing resources are all tipping the scales towards landfill mining.”