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Urban mining as a circular solution for e-waste

Urban mining as a circular solution for e-waste

Domestic appliances, computers, telephones, batteries and many more… No matter how handy or necessary they may be for our everyday modern lives, there always comes that unavoidable moment when we have to get rid of them. Your old smartphone for example, contributes to the 20.4 kilos of e-waste that we produce each year, per inhabitant, in Belgium*. Worldwide, meanwhile, that equates to around 50 million tons of e-waste a year – that’s a staggering 4500 times the weight of the Eiffel Tower! So, if we still want to be able to see Paris through the forests of towers, something needs to be done very soon to slow the growth of this particular source of waste. Is it possible that ‘urban mining’ may come riding to the rescue? That’s right – converting e-waste into new raw materials so that they don’t need to be extracted from the earth again sounds like a great way to achieve two aims at the same time!

What are the risks associated with the rapidly growing flow of e-waste? How can urban mining help keep it under control? And what can you do about it yourself? Find out in this article.

(* Figures from 2019, source:

What is e-waste?

E-waste is the collection of discarded electronic and electrical products, including batteries. Because of the lightning-fast speed of technological progress, there are increasing volumes of e-products coming on to the market, at lower prices, due to which the demand rises. But given that no device is blessed with the gift of eternal life, sooner or later all of these products end up in the waste circuit. This makes e-waste the fastest-growing waste stream worldwide.

The risks of e-waste

Most countries are finding it hard to cope with these huge quantities of discarded products. In 2016, only 20 per cent of electronic waste was being recycled worldwide. Although there was emphasis on collecting discarded products, not enough was being invested in infrastructure to process or safely reclaim and recover the materials from this waste. This means there are too few places where e-waste can be handled safely. Instead, e-waste is being mixed with residual waste, and is as a result often incinerated, buried in landfill sites or exported to developing countries. And, in the main, exporters of e-waste tend to opt for destinations where there is no clear legislation in place for managing e-waste.

Particularly in West Africa and Asia, people work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions to get all that waste processed. Next to that, the toxic substances involved also end up in the soil, air and water, so that nature and the environment are left groaning under the weight of this gigantic stream of e-waste.

Consequently, we have everything to gain from finding better, circular solutions as soon as possible. And urban mining is already a promising step in the right direction. 

Scarce metals hidden in waste

A circular thinker looks at a rubbish heap and sees a big heap of raw materials. That is a big step forward compared to a few generations ago, when waste was just waste and valuable raw materials only came from mines. However, much has changed in the meantime and we know that discarding something does not necessarily mean the end. Inside worn-out appliances and empty batteries, there are still many scarce metals waiting to be mined.

To obtain these raw materials, two things are needed:

  • sophisticated recycling processes, and
  • sorting efforts by the whole of society. 

The above elements will enable us to reap the benefits of raw materials reclaimed from urban mining in the future.

Batterijen portbat
Urban mining

What is urban mining?

Literally, urban mining means 'urban extraction'. Our urban waste is a rich source of raw materials that we can recover through recycling.

In other words, the scarce metals in discarded batteries and appliances are not recovered with a pickaxe, but through high-tech recycling processes. Recycling experts, for example, extract raw materials such as nickel, lead, iron, copper and lithium from used batteries so that they can be reused in new batteries and other applications (from eyeglass frames to wheelbarrows).

We are therefore no longer entirely dependent on exploiting natural mines. And it better be because our technological progress is moving fast. High-growth markets, such as electric vehicles, robotics and home automation, logically increase the demand for raw materials. However, traditional extraction methods have long since ceased to be ideal, so it is advisable to switch to urban mining as much as possible.

To sum up, urban mining offers two major benefits:

  • the stream of e-waste becomes smaller, and
  • the need for conventional mining is reduced.  

In any case, the basis for making a success of this new form of exploitation is there. Indeed, there are enough raw materials in circulation to increasingly become less dependent on conventional mining.

It is important that we use raw materials sparingly and switch to urban mining as much as possible

What can you do?

In order to give urban mining the best chance of success, we must all do our bit. After all, the 'urban mine' must be filled with our sorted waste.

This is what you can do:

  • Use your electrical and electronic products for as long as possible. Opt for quality products that will last longer – and avoid ‘disposable’ items with a short service life.

  • Choose carefully where you buy your products. Some companies are already fairly advanced in their circular thinking and communicate well about it. That way, you can be sure that your product will not just end up in the rubbish after you dispose of it. At Bebat, you can see here what happens to the batteries when they are collected.

  • If your appliance or device is still working, but you can’t/don’t use it any more, why not see if someone else can take it over from you? And if your family members or friends aren’t interested, there are other avenues, such as the Kringwinkel or online platforms for second-hand items.

  • Don't just throw your discarded appliances in the dustbin, but take them to a Recupel collection point. There is still a lot that can be recycled from old electrical appliances. And don’t forget those micro-electro items (earphones, e-vapes, etc.), which often contain a small battery or button power cell.  If it’s easy for you to take the battery out of the device yourself, please do so – and then take it to Bebat. 

  • Take all your used batteries to a Bebat collection point . We take them to approved recycling companies, which in turn mine the valuable raw materials for reuse.

In our country, there are now more than 24,000 Bebat collection points for ordinary house, garden and kitchen batteries. These can be found in shops, companies, schools and recycling facilities. For larger batteries, e.g. for energy storage or in electric vehicles, Bebat takes care of collection, transport and processing on the basis of an individual agreement.

If we all make this small effort, we will be on the way to a promising future!

Start collecting your empty batteries straight away. Find your nearest Bebat collection point.

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