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The Rise of the Urban Mine — Reconciling Resource Supply Needs and Sustainability

The new Biden Administration has made clear that addressing the issue of climate change is a key priority for the next four years, and a flurry of first-week executive orders leave no doubt that the Administration intends to double down on the President’s ambitious goal to make the United States carbon neutral by 2050.

As we previously pointed out, the emphasis on shifting towards a lower carbon future will not only have to be reconciled with the fact that the “future energy system will be far more mineral and metal-intensive than it is today,” but also with the growing realization that as we push to reduce greenhouse gases, we can’t ignore the geopolitical challenges associated with the supply chains for the metals and minerals underpinning the green energy shift — a realization the urgency of which the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced.

In light of these challenges, the mineral resource sector has been stepping up its efforts to pursue closed-loop solutions that prioritize recycling, reclamation and sustainability.

The concept of a circular economy, into which these closed-loop solutions are tied is a system which thrives on sustainability and focuses mainly on refining design production and recycling to ensure that little to no waste results. The concept itself is not new, but with technological advances and against the backdrop of an increasingly interconnected world, it has gained traction in recent years.

Thankfully, from a critical mineral resource supply perspective, the properties of many metals and minerals make them ideal candidates for urban mining, a key part of the circular economy.

The Fraunhofer ISI, a German research organization, recently released a paper on “The Promise and Limits of Urban Mining,” which, if you’re looking for a refresher on the concept and its current manifestations, is well worth a read. According to the Institute, “Urban Mining aims to manage and use these materials as a source of raw material supply, utilizing not only the waste of today but also anticipating and capturing the value contained in the waste of tomorrow. Urban Mining is an important part of the Circular Economy and provides a degree of independence from natural resources, increasing supply security.”

We recently outlined a series of initiatives in the critical mineral resource sector harnessing technological advances to pursue closed-loop solutions, and the list continues to grow as the industry increasingly recognizes its responsibility to fulfill supply needs while meeting the growing sustainability expectations of consumers, society and governments.

While we are still a long ways away from squaring the circle, expect the Urban Mine to play a greater role in the years to come, and we will continue to feature initiatives and projects on our blog going forward.