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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Rubbish – could it be the latest resource?

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Kate Pye

It’s time we started seeing rubbish a bit differently. Waste, whether it is organic or electronic, should be seen as fuel that can be harvested.

Mining older rubbish tips, now known as ‘landfills’, could become a lucrative business and solve many environmental issues. Landfills contain methane gas for energy, compost for agriculture and high concentrations of minerals and rare-earth elements from electronic waste dumped before recycling campaigns started.

Rare earths are a group of 15 elements that have increased in demand lately as they are used in energy-efficient electrical items such as hybrid batteries and other electrical goods. Roughly 20 kilograms are used in every hybrid battery and this is set to double in turn for increased efficiency. Jack Lifton, an independent commodities consultant and strategic metals expert, calls the Toyota Prius ‘the biggest user of rare earths of any object in the world’.

China currently has a monopoly on rare earth production, around 97 per cent of the world’s supply. This is because they undercut prices in the 1990s and forced mines in many other countries to close. In June last year they halved their export quota citing ‘environmental concerns’ which conveniently tripled rare earth prices. In the next few years demand is expected to exceed supply by some 40,000 tonnes annually. Mines in many countries including Australia are now planning to reopen in the next few years.

Encouragingly some countries such as Japan and the UK are seeing waste as a resource and energy source. Late last year UK company Advanced Plasma Power entered into discussions to dig up a landfill in Belgium. They plan to recycle more than 50 per cent of the buried materials and convert the rest into electricity.

The main problem with landfill mining currently is its dependency on high commodity prices. Because these prices fluctuate so much, one day it pays to mine landfills, the next day it doesn’t. There’s also a little issue called toxicity from substances like asbestos that could create some health and safety issues. Judging by the way the economy is set up the world will have to wait till we reach rock-bottom resource levels before landfill mining goes mainstream. However it is encouraging to know that it is starting to happen.

Kate Pye is the education officer for Solo Resource Recovery. If you have any questions as to what is currently recyclable, please contact her on 6687 0455.

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